Psychology prof studies phenomenon of 'non-believed memories'

Have you ever remembered something that happened to you, only to find out it didn’t really happen to you? And even though you realize it didn’t happen to you, can you still ‘remember’ specific details about the event?

Alan Scoboria says you’re not alone. A professor in the University of Windsor’s Psychology department, he says more people than you might think report having what are known as “non-believed memories,” and he’s received a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council to better understand how and why they occur.

According to a paper he co-authored in 2010 and published in Psychological Science, the academic journal of the Association for Psychological Science, almost 350 students out of a sample of 1,386 who were asked indicated that they had a non-believed memory.

“Nobody had really ever just asked people if they had a non-believed memory,” said Dr. Scoboria. “We thought they were pretty rare, but 20 per cent, or about one in five, said they have had one.”

A classic example of a non-believed memory comes from the prominent developmental theorist Jean Piaget. For much of his life he had a detailed memory of a man attempting to kidnap him as a child while he was out with his nurse, only to find out 13 years later the nurse had fabricated the entire story. He stopped believing the incident happened, yet he was unable to stop remembering it as if it had occurred.

“It’s actually very easy to get people to believe things that never happened,” said Scoboria, who added studies show there are even some people who continue believing in a memory of something that happened to them even when faced with indisputable evidence to the contrary. “Once we believe something, we tend to keep believing it.”

Scoboria said his NSERC grant, which will provide him with $135,000 in funding over the next five years, will allow him to hire and train graduate students and research assistants to help with a project on understanding the mechanisms that lead people to continue to have elements of memory about things that they no longer believe happened to them.

“What is it that makes the person stop believing the memory, but doesn’t eliminate the elements of the memory?” he asked. “What are the underlying cognitive processes that lead to this?”

He says the phenomenon speaks to the ability of memory to be manipulated and could have important implications, especially in the courts. He noted there were a number of high-profile cases in the 1990s in which people were accused of sexual assaults that never occurred, which were based on false memories originating from suggestive therapy practices that encouraged patients who had no memories of abuse to try to remember when they were abused.

“There are important implications for this in the legal arena,” Scoboria said. “You want people to rely on their recall and not on their belief that events happened. We don’t tend to differentiate between the two very well. So it’s really important to understand, to be able to break memory down into its different components.”

Scoboria – who was one of 30 UWindsor researchers who received a total of more than $2.9 million in NSERC funding from the agency’s last round of grants – hopes the project will lead to better questions, better experimental methods and better measurement tools to assess the experience of remembering. The research is currently ongoing.

Scoboria will appear today on Research Matters, a weekly talk show that showcases the work of University of Windsor researchers and airs every Thursday at 4:30 p.m. on CJAM 99.1 FM.