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Northwestern researchers pinpoint how false memories are formed

the visual images that the subjects were asked to imagine were later misremembered as actually having been seen.

"We think parts of the brain used to actually perceive an object and to imagine an object overlap," said Paller. "Thus, a vividly imagined event can leave a memory trace in the brain that's very similar to that of an experienced event. When memories are stored for perceived or imagined objects, some of the same brain areas are involved."

Take a real life example in which a police interrogator asks if you saw a particular person at a crime scene. That induces putting that person in your imagination and possibly corrupts later questioning.

"Just the fact of looking back into your memory and thinking about whether an event happened is tantamount to imagining that event happening," Paller said. "If I ask you if something happened, you imagine it happening. Later on -- a day or a year later -- if I ask about that event, you have the tough judgment of deciding what happened and what was imagined."

It is important to know that memory is fallible, Paller said. "We know that we forget quite a bit, but we're not always in touch with the idea that our memories can sometimes can be misleading."

For this procedure of measuring brain activity, people lay down in an MRI machine as they looked at a screen with a series of words, all concrete nouns, and pictures, and they wore head phones to hear what was being said. They were instructed to generate a visual image corresponding to each object that was named. For half the words, a photographic image of the object was presented. The subjects were told to make no response to photos, but only to look at each one while waiting for the next word.

They were told to make a size judgment about the objects they were to imagine. For example, if the word was cat, they were told to imagine the cat and decide if a cat is generally
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Contact: Pat Vaughan Tremmel
p-tremmel@northwestern.edu
847-491-4892
Northwestern University
14-Oct-2004


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