It has happened to all of us. We remember something out of our distant past so vividly that it seems like it happened yesterday. Then we learn that it never happened at all.
Our memories can be very selective, and it turns out, very creative.
"Memory is not like a tape recorder," says Jacquie Pickrell, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Washington, who has come up with evidence that it may be possible for outsiders to "implant" memories of phony events in our brains. Her research suggests it doesn't take much, maybe just the right advertisement.
Working with psychology professor Elizabeth Loftus, Pickrell came up with an experiment that would seem to prove her point. The researchers turned to the world of advertising for the project because it is so pervasive. It's something we all experience, over and over again, every day of our lives.
Bugs Bunny Invades Disneyland
Pickrell and Loftus lined up a group of 120 persons and told them they were going to participate in an advertising evaluation program, one of those group meetings where you're supposed to sit around and tell what works and why.
All of the participants had visited either Disneyland or Disney World. (The Walt Disney Co. is the parent company of ABCNEWS.)
"The subjects thought we were working for Disney," Pickrell says, but they weren't. They just wanted to find out if they could toy with someone else's memories.
The participants were divided into four groups, and asked to read a printed ad for Disneyland.
The first group read an ad about the theme park that made no mention of cartoon characters.
The second group read the same ad, but a 4-foot-tall cardboard cutout of Bugs Bunny was placed in the room.
The third group, which the researchers refer to as the "Bugs Group," read a fake Disneyland ad featuring Bugs Bunny.
The fourth group got a double whammy: both the Bugs ad and the cardboard cutout.
After reading through the ad, which featured a picture of Bugs just outside the Magic Kingdom, the participants were asked whether they had met Bugs while on a visit to the theme park, and whether they had shaken his hand.
About one-third of the participants who had read the phony ad featuring Bugs said they either remembered, or at least knew, they had indeed met Bugs at Disneyland and shaken his hand. Or foot, as the case may be.
But here's the rub. Bugs Bunny wouldn't be caught dead at Disneyland. He belongs to Warner Brothers.
Measuring Memory’s Vulnerability
By contrast, only eight percent of the first group, and four percent of the second, thought they had met the Wascally Wabbit at Disneyland. The difference, the researchers say, was in the ads. The mere suggestion of Bugs invading the land of Mickey was enough to convince a surprisingly high percentage of the participants that they had met him there.
The specific tally for those with memory implants was 30 percent for the third group and 40 percent for the fourth.
"Thirty or 40 percent is a very significant number," Pickrell says.
"The frightening thing about this study is that it suggests how easily a false memory can be created," she adds. "Memory is very vulnerable and malleable."
Loftus says advertising people have focused for years on something called autobiographical memory. If an ad brings something out of our memory that is pleasing to us, maybe we'll be more likely to take the bait.
That's one of the reasons for those black and white commercials that have been dredged up from the past, Loftus says. Just maybe they will conjure up fond memories. And if the memories aren't there, maybe … .
Traumatized Minds More Vulnerable
The fact that our memories are faulty is not exactly astonishing. Those of us in the news business frequently encounter people who remember the same event in such different ways that it's hard to believe they were witnessing the same thing. That's especially true in the case of a violent crime, or a heartbreaking tragedy. Such events can traumatize us to the point that our memory becomes very selective.
But the research suggests that it doesn't take a traumatic event to twist our memory. And that will probably be troubling to many people. Especially if it can be done by someone else.
"You can truly implant a memory for an entire event that never happened," Pickrell says.
Still, as someone noted a long time ago (my memory fails me on who, but I think his first name was Abe) you can't fool all of the people all of the time.
At least 10 percent of the persons who were expected to participate in the Pickrell-Loftus study saw through the scheme as quick as a bunny. They noted that Bugs had no business in Disneyland. His heart, or at least his image, belonged elsewhere.
These folks knew they had never shaken paws with Bugs in Disneyland, so the researchers kicked them out of the study because they knew they couldn't trick them.
The disappointment is something they will remember for a long time, no doubt.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.