Turns out your memory is a lot like the telephone game, according to a new Northwestern Medicine study.

Every time you remember an event from the past, your brain networks change in ways that can alter the later recall of the event. Thus, the next time you remember it, you might recall not the original event but what you remembered the previous time. The Northwestern study is the first to show this.

“A memory is not simply an image produced by time traveling back to the original event — it can be an image that is somewhat distorted because of the prior times you remembered it,” said Donna Bridge, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and lead author of the paper on the study recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience. “Your memory of an event can grow less precise even to the point of being totally false with each retrieval.”

The published study reports on Bridge’s work with 12 participants, but she has run several variations of the study with a total of 70 people. “Every single person has shown this effect,” she said. “It’s really huge.”

“When someone tells me they are sure they remember exactly the way something happened, I just laugh,” Bridge said.

The reason for the distortion, Bridge said, is the fact that human memories are always adapting.

“Memories aren’t static,” she noted. “If you remember something in the context of a new environment and time, or if you are even in a different mood, your memories might integrate the new information.”

Your Memory is Like the Telephone Game