What Are False Memories?

What Are False Memories A Sign Of?

False memories refer to recollections of events or experiences that did not actually happen. They can feel extremely vivid and real to the person remembering them, even though the events never occurred. False memories are quite common and happen to most people from time to time. 

In many cases, having occasional false memories is a normal feature of how human memory works and is not necessarily an indication of any underlying problem. 

However, in certain situations, frequent or very vivid false memories can be a sign of certain mental health conditions.

How False Memories Form

There are a few key ways false memories can form:

Imagination Inflation

Imagination inflation occurs when imagining or visualizing an event repeatedly can lead you to remember the imagined event as if it really happened. 

As you picture the event over and over, your brain starts to encode that imagined scenario as a memory. Even though you only imagined the event, repeatedly picturing it in your mind causes your brain to store it as an actual memory.

Suggestion and MisinformationWhat Are False Memories

Getting suggestive, misleading, or false information about an event you experienced can distort your memory. Being exposed to incorrect details over time can override your actual first-hand memories. 

Sources like other people, media reports, police questioning, or therapists can introduce false details that get incorporated into your memories of what originally happened. The misinformation is embedded in your mind and starts to replace factual details.

Source Confusion

When you learn information from multiple places, you may recall the information but forget where exactly you heard it. You may mistakenly attribute an imagined or suggested event as the source of the memory. 

In other words, you remember the false or imagined information but confuse the source, thinking it was a real experience rather than something suggested to you.

What Are False Memories & Confirmation Bias

People are more likely to form false memories that align with their preexisting beliefs and expectations. Information that fits your worldview is more easily embraced as a true memory. This occurs because of a bias towards confirming your existing ideas. 

Details that seem to validate how you already view things are easier to accept as truth and slip into becoming false memories.


High levels of trauma or stress when experiencing an event can impair memory formation and lead to distorted memories. Gaps in traumatic memories may be unconsciously filled in with false recollections. 

The high emotional intensity caused by trauma impacts the memory encoding process, making the memories much more vulnerable to errors, distortions, and false details.

What Are False Memories & Normal False Memories

Having a few false memories does not necessarily indicate any medical, neurological, or psychological problem. Normal false memories often include:

  • Childhood memories that really happened to a friend or family member, not you
  • Remembering movie or TV scenes as part of your own life
  • Recalling an imagined event instead of a dreamed one
  • Blending together details from multiple similar events
  • Being convinced you remember an event clearly only to be proven wrong

Accepting your mistakes and learning more objective facts usually corrects normal false memories. They do not severely impair daily functioning. If they cause limited distress, it dissipates after realizing the mistake.

When False Memories Are a Concern

While some false memories are a common and benign part of life, having frequent, vivid false memories could signal certain mental health conditions. Some key signs false memories may be a problem include:

Repeatedly Having Similar False Memories

Having the same false memory occur repeatedly or having a set of similar false memories could indicate an underlying issue that needs to be addressed. Certain mental illnesses feature recurrent false memories as a hallmark symptom. 

The repeated nature of the false memories points to a pathological process rather than normal memory errors.

False Memories that Align with Delusions

If false memories reinforce delusional or irrational beliefs, it may be a sign of psychosis. For example, a false memory about being persecuted by government agents aligns with delusions of grandeur or persecution. 

The false memory seems to validate the delusion. False memories that prop up highly unrealistic delusions suggest impaired reality testing.

Severely Impairing or Traumatic False Memories

Some false memories involve vividly recalling abuse, violence, or trauma that objectively did not occur. Believing these traumatic false memories can be extremely impairing and distressing. 

Traumatic false memories may be a symptom of mental illness or past trauma. The emotional intensity of the false memories can severely disrupt life activities.

False Memories of Entire Events

Fabricating entirely fictional events or scenarios likely indicates an issue beyond normal false memories about details. 

Recalling complex false events in great detail could signal impairment in memory formation and retrieval. Inventing detailed memories of events that never happened points to a concerning disconnect from reality.

Persisting False Memories

If false memories persist after being definitively disproven, it shows an inability to distinguish fact from fiction. Persisting false memories against overwhelming evidence is a hallmark of delusions. 

Recognizing factual evidence normally corrects false memories. If false memories stubbornly continue, it suggests the person has lost touch with objective facts.

Mental Health Conditions Associated with False MemoriesWhat Are False Memories A Sign Of

Several psychiatric and neurological conditions involve frequent or more extreme false memories:


In schizophrenia, false memories, particularly of persecution or grandeur, may reinforce delusions. The content of the false memories often aligns with the themes of the delusions. Recalling false evidence seems to further confirm the delusional beliefs.

Bipolar Disorder

During manic episodes in those with bipolar disorder, people may have false memories aligning with racing thoughts or delusions. The mood state impacts memory formation, leading to fabricated recollections conforming to the manic experience.


Recall of events may be skewed negatively due to cognitive distortions in depressed individuals. Depressive thought patterns like pessimism, self-criticism, and hopelessness shape the content of false memories.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Intrusive thoughts in OCD are repeatedly imagined, leading to false memories. The recurrent obsessive thoughts get mistaken for actual memories through imagination inflation.

Dissociative Disorders

Gaps in memory due to dissociation or trauma in dissociative disorders may include falsely recalled details. Dissociating during traumatic events may impair memory encoding and lead to mistaken recollections.


Memory loss and confusion in dementia can cause a blending of fact and fiction. Deteriorating memories make it hard to distinguish between real experiences and things that were imagined, suggested, or seen on TV.

Seizure Disorders

Electrical activity during seizures may disrupt memory formation, leading to false recall of events. The surge of electrical signals can interfere with properly recording memories.

Traumatic Brain Injury

Damage to brain areas involved in memory from traumatic brain injury can cause false recall to fill in the gaps caused by the injury. Missing pieces of memories may be replaced by fabricated details.

Getting Help for Troublesome False Memories

The best course of action if you are concerned about persistent or impairing false memories is to speak to your doctor or a mental health professional. 

Getting an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment can help manage troublesome false memories. Depending on the cause, cognitive behavioral therapy, memory rehabilitation strategies, or medications may be helpful.

What Are False Memories Conclusion

While false memories are generally harmless, frequent or traumatic false memories could potentially be a symptom of more significant issues. By analyzing the types of false memories and when they occur, professionals can identify any underlying conditions. 

Getting the proper care is important for addressing problematic false memories as well as any associated conditions. With support, false memories can often be managed successfully.

If you enjoyed reading this and want to read more about your brain, click Your Memory Under Stress

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