Our collections of memories make us who we are. They are the basis for self-identity, the sum of all of our life experiences. It is normal to occasionally forget someone’s name or why you went into the kitchen, but it is also just as normal to re-write entire memories, minutes or years after the original occurrence. Dr. Julia Shaw, memory expert and forensic psychologist, actually creates false memories in healthy unsuspecting college students. Using current research, she shows just how often our memories are led astray from the truth.

The Memory Illusion uses broad strokes to touch on the social science of current memory research alongside anecdotes of human studies or criminal court cases. You are likely to find at least a few chapters compelling in the hodge-podge of topics covered, but it’s a bumpy ride. While I really like parts of book, much of it is slow and occasionally too basic. For example, “popular” myths that I am surprised are still popular are debunked, including stories about memory geniuses and sinister memory alteration through inception, hypnosis, and the unconscious.

I find the specifics of the social studies most interesting, as they are the strongest evidence of just how easy it is to not only convince an adult they committed a crime as teenager, but that they in fact begin to recall details of the incident in subsequent sessions, eventually appropriating the memory completely. Even more unnerving are the real-world examples of court convictions because of one passionate confession or police officers who ignore facts because they do not fit with an impressionable memory or stereotype.

If someone asks you if you can remember something, say no. All of our memories are a mix of reality and rational interpretation, with details that change every time you remember that memory. But take heart, because even though our brains are highly constantly reworking those memories, they are also constantly learning. Plus, you get to live in a reality you can write.

Recommended as a pop culture memory nonfiction for anyone who prides themselves on their memory!


“Our past is a fictional representation, and the only thing we can be even somewhat sure of is what is happening now. It encourages us to live in the moment and not to place too much importance on our past. It forces us to accept that the best time of our lives, and our memory, is right now.”