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Dr. Jason Chan, Iowa State University – Forming Inaccurate Memories

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Jason Chan of Iowa State University explains the process that makes our memories vulnerable to the accumulation of errors. 

Jason Chan is an assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State University where he conducts research into human memory. His specific research interests include memory distortion and eyewitness suggestibility, cognition and education, and the effects of aging on memory performance.  He earned his Ph.D. at Washington University.

About Dr. Chan

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Dr. Jason Chan – Forming Inaccurate Memories

Recalling an event typically strengthens the memory for that event, but recent evidence from psychology and neurobiology showed that the act of recall can sometimes destabilize a memory and make it more susceptible to alteration - a process called reconsolidation.  Much of the research on reconsolidation focuses on learning in nonhuman animals and fear conditioning in humans.  Evidence for its occurrence in human declarative memory is less compelling.  

Declarative memory refers to the type of memory that can be consciously recalled; e.g., what you did during the past weekend.  In this study, we showed that human declarative memories are particularly susceptible to alterations if they had been recently retrieved.  Human participants watched a movie about a terrorist attack.  In one scene, a criminal attacked a flight attendant with a hypodermic needle.  The participants then either recalled the event or performed an unrelated activity before they were told incorrect information about that event.  For example, they were told that the criminal used a stun gun against the flight attendant.  

We found that participants' memory for the original information (in this case, the needle) was impaired by the incorrect information only if they had recalled the original detail recently.  Moreover, this effect appears to be highly specific, such that the incorrect information affected only memories for the details it was meant to impair, while leaving other memories of the event intact.  These results illustrate that human declarative memory can be selectively rewritten during reconsolidation, a process that plays a fundamental role in the formation and maintenance of memory in humans.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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