Can we recover previously forgotten memories?
This is a controversial question.
Attempts to retrieve long-forgotten memories can result in stories of past lives or alien abductions.
Some have tragically resulted in false accusations or eyewitness testimony implicating innocent people.
There is good reason to be skeptical.
It can happen to anyone.
A recent Internet phenomenon found many people second-guessing their own childhood.
Why? Because things they vividly remember from the past didn’t actually happen quite the way they thought.
There was never a series of books called The Berenstein Bears.
There was never a Jiffy Peanut Butter.
There is a series of books called The Berenstain Bears and a peanut butter called Jif.
Remember that time you visited Disneyland as a child?
You got to meet Bugs Bunny and shake his hand. Remember?
No, you don’t.
Impossible. Bugs Bunny isn’t a Disney character.
But the power of suggestion is strong.
Researchers have found that showing you a few of the right words and images just might make you remember it anyway.
Recovering actual memories
Does any of this mean that we cannot recover memories that were previously lost?
Not necessarily. It might just be a difficult question to test.
A new way of analyzing previous research results gives us some interesting insights.
In previous research, people are often given lists of things to remember and then later asked to recall as many as they can.
A usual analysis would test how many items can be remembered, and then look at how and why this might change over time.
But another thing we could do is look at the items that people can’t remember at first—but then later on do remember.
Looking at the data this way, people do in fact recover lost memories.
Jiffy peanut butter may have never existed, but it is also possible to recover some actual memories.
The “everyday habit” we mentioned earlier?
Previous research has often shown that sleep can increase memory performance.
Give people a list to memorize, and they can remember more of it later if they had slept (than if they stayed awake over the same period of time).
Sleep does help people to retain what they could already remember before.
But it actually seems to have a much stronger effect on recovering memories that were previously lost.
Of course, there will need to be more research before we fully understand how this process relates to more complex memories. But it’s a start.