Experiments Show That Simply Imagining Fictitious Childhood Events Sometimes Makes People Believe They Experienced Them

February 15, 1997

The power of human imagination may be stronger than previously suspected, blurring the line between memory and imagination, a University of Washington psychologist reported today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"One simple act of imagining a fictitious childhood event increased people's confidence that the event happened to them," said Elizabeth Loftus, a UW professor of psychology, who discussed the results of a series of new studies that explored memory and imagination.

"We call this phenomenon 'imagination inflation' and the implications of the mind being so malleable are enormous."

She also pointed to a new direction in memory research, exploring whether the power of imagination can be used to aid people in adopting beneficial health habits.

Loftus, a leading memory researcher and central participant in the debate over repressed memory, was part of a news briefing panel on "Memory in a Complex World." Other panel members were Henry Roediger, chairman of the psychology department at Washington University in St. Louis, and Eric Eich, an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

To explore what happens to human memory when people imagine events that did not occur, Loftus and other researchers conducted a series of related studies. In the initial study, subjects were given a written list of 40 possible childhood events and asked about the likelihood that these events happened to them on a scale of responses ranging from definitely did not happen to definitely did happen.

Two weeks later, the subjects were asked to imagine they had experienced some of these events, ones they had identified as not occurring. These events included falling and breaking a window with their hand, getting in trouble for calling 911, finding a $10 bill in a parking lot or being pulled out of the water by a lifeguard. Not all of the subjects were asked to imagine the same events.

In a typical one-minute exercise, subjects were told to picture it was after school and they were playing in the house when they heard a strange noise outside. They were told they ran toward the window, tripped, fell, reached out and broke a window with their hand. While imagining the situation, the subjects were asked several questions, such as what caused them to trip, what did they feel and what did they do after realizing they were cut. After imagining several situations, the subjects again were given the list of 40 childhood events to fill out.

Comparing the answers from the two lists, Loftus and her colleagues found that a one-minute act of imagination led a significant minority of subjects to say an event was more likely to have happened after previously identifying it as unlikely to have occurred. In the broken window scenario, 24 percent of the subjects who imagined the event showed an increase in confidence that the event had actually happened. For those subjects who did not imagine breaking the window, 12 percent showed a corresponding increase.

Across the eight events that some subjects were asked to imagine, the researchers found that there was more positive change in imagined scenarios, 34 percent, than in non-imagined ones, 25 percent.

Loftus said there are several possible explanations for this "imagination inflation" or why imagining an event led some people to change their minds about the likelihood of a fictitious event actually having happened. One reason might be that an act of imagination might remind some subjects of a true experience. Another and more likely explanation, she said, is that an act of imagination simply made an event more familiar when the second assessment was made and that familiarity was mistakenly related to childhood memories, rather than the act of imagination.

Several subsequent studies replicated the original findings and also found that people with memory or attention lapses are more likely to engage in imagination inflation. In addition, memory inflation also occurs when subjects imagine something happening to other people, but the effect is strongest when they imagine themselves in a situation.

"Imagination about the self leads to more distortion than imagination involving others. But there are situations, such as people sharing their experience in Veteran's Administration group therapy sessions for example, where there may be some people who tend to absorb and take in other peoples' stories as their own and believe they happened to them," Loftus said.

In a look at a new direction for her research, Loftus said "A big question for the future is can we harness the power of imagination to help people lead healthier lives."

She said this work would examine the possibility of engaging people's minds to imagine practices widely recommended by the medical community -- such as eating more fruits and vegetables or flossing your teeth twice a day -- as a technique for promoting activities and having people adopt them as habits.

Loftus' collaborators in the imagination inflation studies included Charles Manning and Marcos Nunes-Ueno, doctoral candidates in psychology at the University of Washington; Maryanne Garry, a former UW post-doctoral researcher and now assistant professor of psychology at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand; and John Paddock, an Atlanta clinical psychologist.

University of Washington

Related Memory Articles from Brightsurf:

Memory of the Venus flytrap
In a study to be published in Nature Plants, a graduate student Mr.

Memory protein
When UC Santa Barbara materials scientist Omar Saleh and graduate student Ian Morgan sought to understand the mechanical behaviors of disordered proteins in the lab, they expected that after being stretched, one particular model protein would snap back instantaneously, like a rubber band.

Previously claimed memory boosting font 'Sans Forgetica' does not actually boost memory
It was previously claimed that the font Sans Forgetica could enhance people's memory for information, however researchers from the University of Warwick and the University of Waikato, New Zealand, have found after carrying out numerous experiments that the font does not enhance memory.

Memory boost with just one look
HRL Laboratories, LLC, researchers have published results showing that targeted transcranial electrical stimulation during slow-wave sleep can improve metamemories of specific episodes by 20% after only one viewing of the episode, compared to controls.

VR is not suited to visual memory?!
Toyohashi university of technology researcher and a research team at Tokyo Denki University have found that virtual reality (VR) may interfere with visual memory.

The genetic signature of memory
Despite their importance in memory, the human cortex and subcortex display a distinct collection of 'gene signatures.' The work recently published in eNeuro increases our understanding of how the brain creates memories and identifies potential genes for further investigation.

How long does memory last? For shape memory alloys, the longer the better
Scientists captured live action details of the phase transitions of shape memory alloys, giving them a better idea how to improve their properties for applications.

A NEAT discovery about memory
UAB researchers say over expression of NEAT1, an noncoding RNA, appears to diminish the ability of older brains to form memories.

Molecular memory can be used to increase the memory capacity of hard disks
Researchers at the University of Jyväskylä have taken part in an international British-Finnish-Chinese collaboration where the first molecule capable of remembering the direction of a magnetic above liquid nitrogen temperatures has been prepared and characterized.

Memory transferred between snails
Memories can be transferred between organisms by extracting ribonucleic acid (RNA) from a trained animal and injecting it into an untrained animal, as demonstrated in a study of sea snails published in eNeuro.

Read More: Memory News and Memory Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.