In an interview with NPR, New York Times reporter Sharon Otterman said hot car deaths could owe to false memories. She said parents often have memories of removing victims from their cars despite not doing so. A key component of this situation could be the brain’s memory center being unreliable.
Speaking with NPR’s Ari Shapiro, Sharon Otterman mentioned several problems the overworked brain is prone to have, including memories of things that haven’t happened, forgetting obvious and important details, and falling into old habits of routine. For example, a parent of two who leaves the youngest sibling in a car may have dropped the older sibling off at school or day care first and then gone on autopilot—tragically, an autopilot routine from before the younger sibling was born. Many parents in such cases also hold distinct memories of removing victims of hot car deaths from the cars, even though they actually didn’t. The brain’s memory center is frequently untrustworthy and has a tendency to be outright false.
How We Make False Memories from Scratch
Forgetting things can cause us a lot of trouble, but surprisingly it isn’t the main culprit. “The problem arises when we’ve actually forgotten something but don’t realize it,” said Dr. Peter M. Vishton, Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. “A false memory can be worse than no memory at all.”
According to Dr. Vishton, when we’re trying to recall a memory of any kind accurately, we’ll often fill in the gaps subconsciously without considering that we may be wrong. This is where false memories come from. “We think of the event that we’re trying to recall, mentally process the elements that come to mind, and then we stitch them together into a sensible memory,” he said. “If any pieces are missing, we are masters at filling in those missing parts, [or] inferring what’s there if it can’t be directly recalled.”
When Past Experience Inspires False Memories
Sometimes, an event we wish to recall can get cobbled together with other memories we have of similar situations, which is likely why some hot car deaths occur. If we’ve had enough experience with a similar event, then we may use elements from those previous experiences as a kind of auto-complete for the current event. “This is often described as a problem of ‘source memory,'” Dr. Vishton said. “We pull out information in our memories that’s derived from many different sources, but it all gets mixed together into a single narrative. The biggest problem with this effect is that a lack of source memory doesn’t dampen our confidence in the voracity of our own memories.”
This confidence of memory can cause serious issues, but why do we have it? “Our confidence in the accuracy of some memory is driven by the detail of our recall,” Dr. Vishton said. “Unfortunately, not by its accuracy.” In other words, when a specific enough detail of a memory comes to mind, we feel a surge of confidence that that memory must be accurate. “Oh, if I can remember something as unimportant as the shirt I was wearing the moment I heard that a plane had flown into one of the towers at the World Trade Center, surely my other recollections of that time must be accurate,” we think.
Unfortunately, our brains may have just thrown that shirt into the memory from a similar time we experienced an emotional shock on the same scale. Alternatively, even if we were wearing that shirt, that isn’t a reliable indicator that our other memories from that moment are accurate. We merely get a false boost of confidence from “getting that part right.” And all this can happen subconsciously, so we don’t often consider whether our memories are right.
Some false memories are inconsequential, but others can have serious legal repercussions. Inaccurate witness testimony can negatively affect police reports, problems with source memory can cause jurors to find a sworn-in witness to be unreliable during a court case, and believing a child has been dropped off at day care when they haven’t can lead to hot car deaths.
Dr. Peter M. Vishton contributed to this article. Dr. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his Ph.D. in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University.