How does the brain create false memories

It's that easy to forge memories

Katarina has never sat on an elephant in her life. We fake a childhood photo of her - and after a few conversations, she even remembers details of the elephant ride. Details that never happened: "I remember climbing on top of it was cool. But that my parents wanted to photograph me, I found that a bit annoying.

This can happen to any of us because our brain is constantly learning. In the process, the connections between nerve cells change - some connections are new, others weaken over time if they are seldom "used" or degenerate completely.

Gaps in memory

A side effect: memories can also be changed in this way. Because they are networks of nerve cells. Let's take the example of the elephant ride: a blurry childhood memory merges with the wrong information from photos and conversations to create a new memory.

Why does that work? Because our autobiographical memory is patchy - especially when it comes to early memories. The brain tries to fill these gaps. But not every memory can be changed easily - certain requirements are required for this:

Plausible explanations and time

How plausible a memory appears to us and how long ago it happened play a role. If we sit at family dinner in the evening and our aunt speaks to us about the dog that we had for a short time as a child, then it will initially irritate us that we initially do not remember this dog - a dog that never existed.

But if our aunt explains to us that this dog died back then and that his death was a traumatic event for us, then we have a rational explanation for why we don't remember - and then we do it anyway.

Even false memories of criminal acts

Memories can be manipulated particularly well if they are linked to real experiences. "Back then you always played with the dog with your friend Tanja," our aunt could say - and since our friend Tanja actually had a dog, our memories merge with the new, false memory.