False Visual Memories

People can be easily misled into thinking they've seen things they haven't seen. Because many of us use context to remember what we've seen, relevant images seem familiar.

By Erik Strand, published on November 10, 2003 - last reviewed on June 30, 2005

Don't believe everything you see -- or
remember having seen. People can be easily misled into
thinking they’ve seen things that were never really there, according to

Participants in a study at Ohio State University viewed sets of 12
slides depicting geometric figures of various shapes and colors.
Following each set of slides, researchers showed each subject five test
slides, including two which were part of the original set, two which were
obviously not and one ‘critical lure’ that was strongly
related to slides in the first set but did not actually appear

Subjects correctly identified test slides that had been among the
original 12 figures with about 80 percent accuracy. They also accurately
picked out shapes that were clearly not in the previous group. But nearly
60 percent of the time they also believed they had seen the
“lure” image in the original set -- often reporting that they
had “definitely” seen the slide -- though in reality they were
seeing it for the first time.

A lot of us use the context of a situation, or the
‘gist’ of what we’ve seen, when we are trying to
remember things,” explains lead researcher David Beversdorf.
“While using context helps us to remember things, it can also throw
us off.”

Beversdorf intends to apply his results and his research paradigm
to studies of autistic adults. Because autistic people are less aware of
contextual clues, they are actually able to outperform normal subjects on
verbal false-memory tests. “We want to see if this is found in
spatial false memories as well,” says Beversdorf.

He presented his findings at the 2003 annual Society for Neuroscience
conference in New Orleans.