True Insights from False Memories

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Science  24 Sep 2010:
Vol. 329, Issue 5999, pp. 1577
DOI: 10.1126/science.329.5999.1577-c

Archimedes is reputed to have solved the problem of determining whether silver had been substituted for gold in a votive crown after a flash of insight as he bathed. Suppose, however, that instead of stepping into a full bathtub, he had been asked by his local psychologist to recall words from a list that he had just heard—a list that did not contain the word “water” but did contain words such as bath, wash, and tub. Would Archimedes have still have cried, “Eureka!”? Howe et al. show that he very probably would have. They demonstrate that using the classical Deese/Roediger-McDermott paradigm to prime a false memory that a target word is on a list of topically related words enabled people to answer more accurately and rapidly when challenged on compound remote associate tasks where the target word was the correct answer. An example of such a task would be to come up with the word “water” when presented with the three words sea, melon, and skiing. Furthermore, this performance increment was observed even when people were simply exposed to the lists, indicating that the automatic generation of the false memory, which is thought to occur during encoding of the list, was sufficient to improve problem solving.

Cognition 117, 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.08.009 (2010).

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