Are false memories always bad?

 Maybe imagining a predator is a good thing

Humans create false memories. Some of them can be harmful, such as falsely identifying an innocent man as a criminal, or falsely recalling childhood abuse that never happened. But developmental psychologist Mark L. Howe wonders if false memories have a purpose:
“False memories tend to get a bad rap... But false memories are a natural outcropping of memory in general. They must have some positive effect, too... Memories true or false can have a negative or positive effect, depending on the context. The key point is: Just because a memory is false doesn’t make it bad.”
He proposes that our ancestors may have been helped by illusions:
“The animal that goes to a favorite food-foraging location and sees signs that a predator was there—but not the predator itself—may be on guard the next time. But the creature that falsely remembers the predator was actually there might be even more cautious.”
I wonder if our false memories act in a general way to help protect us, where the overall experience is more important than the details. As Mr. Howe says:
“Memory is designed to extract meaning from experience: At the foraging place, something bad was going on. You don’t need the exact information to get the meaning.”
His paper is in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science. (Unfortunately, it costs $35 to read the whole thing)

- Mark Howe’s homepage at Lancaster University>>
- Illusory Memories Can Have Salutary Effects, Association for Psychological Science>>

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