A few years ago Richard Saunders visited Sceptic School and gave the students a false word memory test. The test involves memorising words from a list then writing down as many as you can. Each word is related to a theme in some way. The idea of the test is to see how many people write down the thematic word. The catch is however, that word never appeared in the original list. When we see the words ‘cake’, ‘sugar’, ‘chocolate’ and ‘jam’, our brains immediately think ‘sweet’. A lot of students wound up writing ‘sweet’ in their list of remembered words.
Today I tried the test myself. Taking a hint from the work of Michael A. Stadler et. al., I used a list of words that reportedly had the highest chance of creating a false memory. Before I spoil anything, give the test below a try (click the play button to begin) and see how many words you can remember.
Did you write down the word ‘window’? About 50% of my students did. Does that mean that they’re stupid? Not at all. It just means that their memories are as fallible as everybody else’s. When we are remembering, the story telling part of our brain is actually doing a lot of work as well. Often we are simply creating a story to suit what we think our memory should contain.
The experiment led into a great discussion about human error, the use of eye-witnesses in court and the idea that if a lot of our memories are false, how real are we as people? Nothing like hitting the kids with a bit of existential dread.