Because memories are imperfect under ordinary circumstances -- forming, storing and retrieving them, with great variations in factors influencing those processes -- it is unlikely that a one-answer-fits-all will settle those controversies soon.
But a group of researchers from various disciplines at Northwestern University literally have peered into the brain to offer new evidence on the existence of false memories and how they are formed.
Published in the journal Psychological Science, the new study used MRI technology to pinpoint how people form a memory for something that didn't actually happen.
"Our challenge was to bring people into the laboratory and set up a circumstance in which they would remember something that did not happen," said Kenneth A. Paller, professor of psychology and co-investigator of the study. (Brian Gonsalves, who was a doctoral student of Paller's and who now is a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University, is the first author of the paper.)
"We measured brain activity in people who looked at pictures of objects or imagined other objects that we asked them to visualize. Later we asked them to discriminate what they actually saw from what they imagined," Paller said.
Extending upon considerable Northwestern research on what happens in the brain when people remember versus forget, the researchers were interested in what happens differently in the brain when false memories are produced.
"We learned that the particular parts of the brain critical for generating visual images are highly activated when people imagine images such as those we presented to our study participants," said Paller.