How Memories Fuel Driving Fear by Distorting Themselves in Your Head

by on July 2, 2013

squirrelYou recall the scene distinctly. It was dark. You were driving. And something very bad happened.

The bad thing that happened, however, has gotten much worse over time. When you recalled that bad thing five years ago it was hitting a squirrel. As your driving fears worsened, that bad thing got bigger and badder every year, eventually morphing into a major accident scene or a five-car pileup, with ambulance, local police, state troopers, a gas station explosion and maybe even an injured circus clown or two.

The squirrel memory had long scurried from the picture.

Just as our fears can fester and grow over time, our memories can likewise change, sometimes without us even realizing what we no remember is so far from the truth that it’s no longer even reality. While memories may not change as dramatically as our fictitious example above, they can easily twist and distort themselves in our heads without us even realizing it.

To get a better picture of how memories can become distorted, check out some info on our how our minds work reported by PsyBlog. 

Three Reasons Your Hit Squirrel Can Turn into a Five-Car Pileup


As humans, we’re highly suggestible. We may readily agree that the soup du jour is the best we’ve ever tasted if the waiter happens to ask or that the air conditioner is a little too cold in our classroom if the professor makes it a point. Our memories work in the same way, sometimes falling into line with what others suggest may be reality.

A study out of Iowa State University underscored this suggestibility with a simple experiment. Study participants were shown poor-quality video of a gunman shooting a security guard during a crime. They were then handed a photo lineup of suspects and told one of those suspects was the gunman – even though the guy’s photo was not in the lineup at all.

Participants were then divided into three groups and told to pick out the man who shot the guard.

  • One group received no feedback after picking out the supposed gunman
  • One group were told their choice was wrong
  • One group was congratulated for picking out the right suspect

The group that was congratulated for picking out the “right” guy, even though he was not the man in the video, ended up incredibly confident of what they saw on the video and the accuracy of their identification.

“Those given positive feedback were suddenly much more sure they were right, thought the identification was easier, had a better view, thought their judgment was more trustworthy and would be more willing to testify (in court against the suspect),” PsyBlog reports.

Thus next time you swerve to avoid hitting a squirrel, but someone else tells you it was really a hedgehog you nearly hit, your memory may begin to play tricks on you.


Misattribution can kick in when we swear we read a juicy tidbit in a newspaper but really heard it from a neighbor. It can also hit when we blend memories together, perhaps putting circus clowns at the scene of the accident when they were really at a party earlier that day. One more way we engage is misattribution is thinking what we believe happened really did happened – even when it was only a thought or passing fantasy.

The third aspect came to light in a toothpick experiment two researchers conducted. Researchers asked one set of study participants to break a toothpick and another set to simply imagine they were breaking a toothpick. Researchers let time pass and then repeated the request.

Participants who imagined breaking the toothpick the second time ended up more likely to think they’d actually broken the toothpick the first time – even if they didn’t.

Memories can sashay, swish and change over time. Or we can start forgetting stuff altogether.


Transience, or the concept of impermanence, definitely applies to our memories. What we remember on a particular day can be swayed by our thoughts, emotions, motivations and other subjective factors on that particular day.  Or the memories can flee altogether, ensuring we don’t recall anything at all.

Short-term and long-term memories both fall prey to transience, with the former happening much more quickly and completely than the latter. Short-term memory typically contains things we need to recall quickly and then can easily forget, like a phone number we were just going to call or the info we crammed in our heads for an upcoming test.

Long-term memory also dissipates, usually with an initial burst of losing a lot of information and then a slower loss of information as time goes on. PsyBlog notes that some psychologists believe we never lose any memories at all; we simply lose the ability to access them.

Either way, the information is not there to supplement our memory – although suggestibility and misattribution can speedily come to the rescue to create memories that were never reality in the first place.

Where Driving Anxiety and Fears Fit In

Knowing how your memories twist and distort themselves can be very good news for driving fears, particularly if your fears are based on a specific incident that may have grown more horrific over time.

Maybe that circus clown you think you hit was really or squirrel – or that squirrel was really a rock – or that rock was just a shadow in the road that made you think something scary was in your midst. Fears of what happened in the past, or what you think happened in the past, make for prominent fodder for fears of things we think will happen in the future.

That’s exactly where anxiety fits in, with the fear of something that may or may not happen. All of this info works to remind you to keep your eyes on the road directly beneath your wheels, so to speak, or the here and now and what’s happening in this very moment.

There are no squirrels, no circus clown and no five-car pileup. Just a brain that may be having a heyday with all kinds of twisted-up memories.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

bola288 May 21, 2017 at 2:28 am

While this threat-bias can distort reality, fuel irrational fears, and make one more vulnerable to fear-mongering politicians, it could also promote hypervigilance, perhaps making one better prepared to handle an immediate threat.


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