Memory Versus Media: Creating False Memories with Virtual Reality


Spotlight On Media And Memory Research

Previous research on human memory has shown that false memories can develop in response to a combination of self-relevant information and different types of media.

VirtualFor example, in a study conducted by Drs. Maryanne Garry and Matthew Gerrie, adult participants viewed a manipulated childhood photograph falsely depicting each participant riding in a hot-air balloon as a young child. When shown the manipulated photographs, half of the adult participants came to erroneously recall riding in a hot-air balloon as a child. Other studies have explored the brain’s ability to distinguish memories derived from written narratives, mental imagery or virtual reality simulations from memories of physical-world experiences.

To further this line of research and test the hypothesis that source-monitoring errors occur in direct proportion to media richness, at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab we tested a new form of media for studying false memory formation: Immersive Virtual Environments (IVEs). IVEs are created using a combination of hardware, software, and interactive devices which make the user feel surrounded by a virtual, computer-generated environment. Immersive Virtual Environment Technology (IVET) continually tracks the user’s position and updates the images that the user sees in the head-mounted display (see Panel C).

In addition, using photographs of people and places, IVEs can be personalized to include virtual humans or environments that resemble specific people or locations in the real world. A three-dimensional model of child’s head (see Panel A) can be attached to a virtual body and included in a virtual reality simulation.

Furthermore, virtual humans can be animated with a high degree of behavioral realism. Experiences in virtual environments, unlike experiences with less rich media, may be encoded into human memory with such detail that they become very difficult to distinguish from memories of physical-world experiences.

In the Stanford University study, 55 preschool and elementary children listened to the experimenter verbally describe a false childhood scenario where the children either swam with friendly orca whales or shrunk to dance with a stuffed mouse. The children were then randomly assigned to one of four memory-prompt conditions that varied according to media richness.

One-quarter of the children were instructed to sit quietly for several minutes; one-quarter were asked to sit and imagine the childhood scenario for several minutes; another quarter were immersed in a virtual environment simulation where they saw another virtual child either swim with orcas or shrink to dance with a stuffed mouse; and the remaining children were immersed in a virtual environment simulation where they saw a virtual child designed to look like the participant swimming with orca whales (see Panel B) or shrinking and dancing with a stuffed mouse.

Next, all participants were asked if they could remember swimming with the orcas whales or dancing with the stuffed mouse in the real world. Results revealed that while preschool children were equally likely to develop false memories across all memory-prompt conditions, elementary children recalled significantly more false memories in the mental imagery and IVET condition where they saw a virtual child that looked like themselves than in the condition where they were asked to sit quietly after listening to the false scenario.

Implications For Media Usage

The results reveal that mental imagery (which the participant must actively engage) and IVET self-relevant simulations (which can be completely controlled by a third party and only passively perceived by the participant) are both powerful in eliciting false memories in children. This study suggests that third parties may be able to elicit false memories without the consent or mental effort of an individual.

With this in mind, scholars and professionals alike must critically examine the use of detail-rich digital media in places such as courtrooms and counseling centers. There are many benefits and precautions to consider before implementing digital media technology; different forms of media may manipulate the human experience in dramatic and predictable ways.

This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine’s Fall 2010 issue.

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