Call me Ishmael, dammit!

New research shows we can internalize fiction.

Published June 4, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When you look back on your life, you may recall slaying a white whale, or falling in love with a prepubescent Lolita, or tracking down the last of the Mohicans -- but more likely you just overdosed on Melville, Nabokov or James Fenimore Cooper.

New research from the University of Washington shows that reading a story about a fictitious experience can alter people's memories to the point that half believe the incident actually occurred in their own lives. The researchers were to report their findings Thursday at the American Psychological Society's annual meeting in Denver.

In the two-year study on memory distortion, headed by doctoral candidate Jacqueline Pickrell and colleagues at UW, researchers used a questionnaire to screen a pool of college undergraduates about childhood experiences. Had they ever been lost in a shopping mall? Had they ever been picked on by a bully? Sixty-five students who said those two experiences "probably never happened" to them were asked to come back two weeks later for additional testing that the researchers disguised as a separate survey on reading comprehension.

This time participants were asked to read a short story -- one that included details about a child getting lost in a mall or being bullied. The students were then called back to fill out the original questionnaire one day, eight days and 15 days after reading the story. A control group that was not exposed to the stories filled out the screening questionnaire along with the other subjects.

When retested, subjects who read one of the stories were far more likely to say they had experienced the fictional situation than students in the control group. On the Day 1 retest, 32 percent of the readers said the event had happened to them, compared to 24 percent of the controls. By Day 8 the numbers had increased to 50 percent of the readers and 27 percent of the controls. On Day 15, 39 percent of the readers and 29 percent of the controls said they had indeed experienced the event they previously denied experiencing.

"This is further evidence of the reconstructive nature of memory," Pickrell says, speaking by cell phone en route to Denver. "You don't realize it, but you're incorporating information all the time. Memory takes bits and pieces of current events and incorporates them into our past. We're constantly adding new information to reconstruct our autobiographical history."

So what do these survey results say about cases of "recovered memory" in which patients suddenly recall, after decades of apparent forgetfulness -- and often at the suggestion of their therapists -- traumatic episodes from childhood? "Changing belief is the first step to creating false memory," Pickrell says. "We're not implanting false events. We've demonstrated that you don't even have to be that suggestive."

The study revealed another surprise. The subjects were randomly assigned to read same-sex or opposite-sex versions of the two stories, and results showed that readers were more likely to come to believe that fictional incidents had happened to them when they read a story with a protagonist of the opposite sex than one with a same-sex protagonist.

Pickrell and her colleagues were a little baffled. "Perhaps if you're a woman reading about a girl you don't need to process it as much to assimilate the information. For a man, there's more processing" so the incident is more likely to become distorted in the reader's consciousness. But, Pickrell admits, that's only a guess. "We're just speculating," she says.

You can't believe everything you read -- everyone knows that. But, as this new research suggests, you can't always believe everything you believe, either.

By Jon Bowen

Jon Bowen is a frequent contributor to Salon.


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