Lancaster University

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Professor investigates false memory in children

05/02/2007 16:31:26

A Lancaster University Psychologist is investigating how children develop false memories.

Professor Mark Howe has been awarded £316,015.85 by the Economic and Social Research Council to carry out a three year study which aims to find out more about the phenomenon which can be distressing for both the children and their carers.

There have been documented cases of false memories which have led children to make claims of sexual or other abuse which have subsequently been proven to be untrue.

Researchers are keen to discover more about how children sometimes develop clear and particular memories of events which have never taken place.

Professor Howe, who has studied memory and children’s memory development throughout his career, said the study represented an important opportunity to find out more about a little understood area of psychology - an area that contributes to our knowledge of how children form both true and false memories.

He is particularly keen to investigate the reasons why susceptibility to false memories actually increases with age throughout our childhood and into adolescence.

During the research project Professor Howe’s team will use simple word lists to examine how children make associations between concepts and investigate how those simple associations can go awry, leading children to create false memories.

The research will involve around 1,800 children over three years in Lancashire and Cumbria. It will start this June.

He said: “Memory is fallible. This fallibility - when measured in terms of susceptibility to false memory illusions - tends to increase not decrease with age in childhood. We are not entirely sure why this is the case.

“One theory we have is that false memories can be spontaneously created through the associations we make in our brain. One concept stimulates another - for example if we read a list of words such as ‘bed, pillow, dream’ we may later believe that we also heard the word ‘sleep’. Even though that word was not on the list our brain has made an association which becomes a false memory.

“The older a child is, the more able they are to make these associations.

“This research project will give us a better understanding of the development of children's true and false memories. It will also provide an awareness of questioning techniques that will reduce the probability of children creating false memories.”