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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

There’s remembering. There’s forgetting. And then there’s false memory, our memory of an event that never actually happened.

Why it matters: Everyone is vulnerable to false memory. Sometimes it’s subtle: thinking you saw a yield sign when you saw a stop sign. But sometimes it’s life-altering: eyewitness testimony that leads to the wrongful conviction of innocent people.

People can be “very confident in things that never happened,” Duke neuroscientist Roberto Cabeza tells Axios.

What's new: In an age of AI, deepfakes and doctored photographs, misinformation can subtly sculpt our memories. And researchers are concerned about how immediately replaying photos and videos will affect how we remember experiences.

  • Even blatantly doctored photographs — with written disclaimers — of the 2012 London Olympic torch relay and the 2011 Royal Wedding led a subset of viewers to believe more violent protestors had been present and more people arrested at these events than actually were.

How it works: Our memory system often fails not only because we forget things that happen, but also because we remember things that didn't happen, says Cabeza.

  • The brain can distinguish between false and true memories. Cabeza found that high confidence for true memories was associated with greater medial temporal lobe activity, while for false memories it was associated with greater frontoparietal activity in the brain.
  • One explanation for this difference is that recollection is strongly associated with the medial temporal lobe, while familiarity is associated with frontoparietal regions.

This flexibility of our memory systems means that not only can memories be altered, but entirely false memories can be planted.

  • For decades, Elizabeth Loftus, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Irvine, has pioneered work on false memory to prevent mistaken eyewitness testimonies, consulting on hundreds of criminal cases, including the O.J. Simpson, Ted Bundy and Rodney King trials.
  • “You need independent corroboration to know whether you’re dealing with a real memory or a false memory,” she tells Axios.

Yet planting false memories isn't necessarily a bad thing, according to Loftus. She found that subjects who were led to believe they loved asparagus as children subsequently were more interested in eating asparagus at a restaurant and were willing to pay more for asparagus in a grocery store.

  • “You can use these suggestive techniques to influence people’s nutritional choices, maybe make a dent in the obesity problem in our society. And I think that can be a good thing.”

Go deeper:

Go deeper

45 million Americans under winter storm watches near New England

Computer model projection showing the winds moving around the powerful East Coast storm on Saturday Jan. 29, 2022. Image: https://earth.nullschool.net

Nearly 45 million Americans are under winter weather alerts and warnings from North Carolina to northeastern Maine, as a major winter storm threatens the region.

Why it matters: It is predicted to be the biggest blizzard since 2018 to strike the Northeast with more than 2 feet of snow possible in parts of eastern Massachusetts, according to the National Weather Service.

Australian PM pledges $700M for climate change-threatened Great Barrier reef

A green sea turtle is flourishing among the corals at Lady Elliot island in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Friday a AU$1 billion ($703 million) investment plan for the Great Barrier Reef.

Why it matters: The nine-year plan for projects including water quality improvement, reef conservation and supporting some 64,000 tourism jobs comes months ahead of this year's federal election. It has been criticized by scientists and environmental groups for failing to tackle climate change.

Judge nixes Gulf of Mexico oil leases in climate-focused ruling

Tug boats prepare to tow the semi-submersible drilling platform Noble Danny Adkins through the Port Aransas Channel into the Gulf of Mexico on December 12, 2020 in Port Aransas, Texas. Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

A federal judge on Thursday canceled the Biden administration's late 2021 sale of new oil-and-gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

Why it matters: The ruling that the greenhouse gas emissions analysis by the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) was insufficient is a win for green groups that challenged the decision, as they seek to curb fossil fuel production.