Dr Julia Shaw

How Dr Julia Shaw can hack into your memory

Text: Florian Obkircher
Photo: TOM OLDHAM

The psychologist and senior lecturer in criminology can implant in our minds memories of events we’ve never actually experienced. A spooky proposition? Of course it is. But it’s also a very effective means of breaking bad habits

Dr Julia Shaw wants to drive us all out of our minds, albeit in a good way. In her 2016 best-selling debut book, The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting And The Science Of False Memory, the Canadian behavioural psychologist shows us how malleable our memories can be, right down to making us remember things that never really happened.

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THE RED BULLETIN: We know that memories aren’t always totally reliable. But you go one step further and suggest that we shouldn’t trust them at all. What makes you say that? 

DR JULIA SHAW: Because every single memory of ours is false. The question isn’t whether it’s true or false; the question is whether it’s very false or not that false. 

So you’re trying to tell us that if we described what we had for dinner last night… 

If you wanted, you could close your eyes right now and tell me what you saw just before you closed them. Believe me, you would leave some things out and invent other things. 

OK, we can believe that we might leave things out, but inventing stuff?

Yes. Our brains aren’t capable of fully recording and memorising reality. If our memory is patchy, we invent things, unconsciously, to create as complete a picture as possible; a conclusive overall view. 

© Youtube // Julia Shaw

But we have a friend with a photographic memory. He could probably remember…

Sorry, but there’s no such thing as a photographic memory. Of course there are people who, like the friend you mentioned, have a good memory. But, scientifically speaking, it’s impossible to remember in precise detail something that happened years ago.

So are you saying that we’re lying when we talk about our own lives? 

Basically, yes. Maybe not with any malign intent, but yes, you are.

Now you’re giving us an identity crisis. What do we do if we can’t even trust our memories?

It’s an important realisation to make; the fallibility of our memory demonstrates the flexibility of our brain and shows how inventive it is at filling in any gaps. And it’s precisely this flexibility that makes us human. If it weren’t for this, we wouldn’t be able to be creative, solve problems, or make new links when we’re given information. A hard drive, on the other hand, is only able to store data.

We’d still like to forget fewer things, though. Is there any way of achieving this?

The brain is a network of neurons. So if you want to improve your memory, you have to broaden the network, and you achieve that by creating as many different connections as possible. Make facts come to life!

In one study, Dr Shaw managed to convince 70 per cent of her subjects that they had committed a crime in their youth

How does that work?

Here’s a very simple example: if, for instance, you want to remember that Toronto is the most heavily populated city in Canada, you could visualise a big red maple leaf with a ‘T’ hopping around on it. Link facts to bizarre images. We call this multisensory mnemonics. It helps larger networks form in the brain, and you’ll be able to fall back on them more easily further down the line.

Can we also make ourselves forget something? 

Yes, you can. You have to imagine your brain is like a Wikipedia page – you edit the page, but so do other people.

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In The Memory Illusion, you describe how shockingly easy it is to get innocent people to confess to crimes they never committed. How can we use these methods in a positive way?

Do you like ice cream?

Yes, we like ice cream very much. But what does that have to do with memory?

In our research, we are currently looking at ways of planting false memories in people to help them give up bad habits. One of these methods is Elizabeth Loftus’ false memory diet.

“EVERY SINGLE MEMORy of ours IS FALSE. THE QUESTION IS JUST HOW FALSE?”
Dr Julia Shaw, 29

You could use it to help us give up sweet things?

I’ll go one better than that: you can do it yourself! The next time you decide you want an ice cream, imagine it’ll make you sick. Persuade yourself that the last time you ate ice cream, it made you vomit. Imagine the colour and the smell of the vomit – the more detail you can envisage, the better. That’s the way to plant a false memory.

But we’ll know we’re only pretending…

If you’re really serious about wanting to give up ice cream – and that’s key to the success of this method – you can trick your brain, believe me.

Is there any truth to the claim that soon we won’t be able to remember anything at all due to sensory overload from mobile phones, the internet and social media?

These days, young people are often accused of suffering from digital amnesia because they’re constantly staring at their mobile phones. But what is frequently overlooked is the fact that we no longer have to remember every single detail – everything is there online! I don’t think technology is making our memory worse; it’s just changing it.

Do the results of your research ever frighten you?

On the contrary, I find them liberating. When I give talks on the subject, I always advise attendees to “live in the here and now, because everything else is fiction”.

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02 2017 The Red Bulletin 

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