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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

Updated 4 hours ago - Sports

Olympics dashboard

Silver medalist Lilly King of Team USA (left) embraces gold medalist Tatjana Schoenmaker of Team South Africa on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Women's 200m breaststroke final on July 30. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images

🥇 : U.S. gymnast Suni Lee wins gold in the women's individual all-around

🚣‍♀️: Team USA women's eight rowing fails to reach the podium

🤸🏾‍♀️: Simone Biles reacts to "love and support" after withdrawing from all-around gymnastics and team finals, citing her mental health

🏊: Olympic swimmer Ryan Murphy wins Silver in 200m

📷: In photos: Tokyo Olympics day 6 highlights

🗓: The Olympic events to watch today

🏃‍: Female Olympians push back against double standard in uniforms

Go deeper: Full Axios coverage

Former Michigan Sen. Carl Levin dies at 87

Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) in 2014. He died Thursday. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) died Thursday, his family and the Levin Center at Wayne Law — which bore his name — confirmed. He was 87.

Why it matters: The Detroit native served for 36 years in the U.S. Senate, serving twice as chairman of the Armed Services Committee and is credited with helping overturn the military's “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule.

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Military members will be included in Biden's new COVID guidance

Joe Biden. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Members of the military will be required to get vaccinations or face regular testing, social distancing, mask mandates and restrictions on travel for work, the the Pentagon said on Thursday evening.

Why it matters: The policy was announced for federal workers and onsite contractors earlier on Thursday, part of several new Biden initiatives to get more Americans vaccinated and slow the spread of the Delta variant.