Imagine that one day next week, you suddenly find yourself charged with a terrible crime from your distant past that you are entirely innocent of. Your family is bewildered, your friends are anxious, and your colleagues steadily start taking distance from you. You begin by trying to put a brave face on things, certain that these horribly inexplicable accusations will soon be lifted and your life will somehow return to normal.
But they are not. Instead, matters only get worse. The case goes to court, where you are consistently portrayed as a despicable monster who has systematically lived out a double life of abuse and intimidation on the weak and vulnerable.
After several months of sustained public humiliation, your mental state is now so precarious that you simply don’t know what to believe. When the verdict finally does come down, and you are found guilty, it was almost like you were expecting it. Swiftly, mercilessly, and with no apparent reason whatsoever, your life is now irrevocably ruined.
This deeply disturbing Kafkaesque plot is not, sadly, a film noir thriller, but an actual scenario that has been played out, time and time again, in real courtrooms and with real people who found themselves near someone undergoing “repressed memory therapy”.
Elizabeth Loftus has witnessed this sort of thing many times. One of the world’s foremost memory experts, she has devoted the majority of her research life to demonstrating the often highly tenuous and malleable nature of human memory.
Her research began in relatively mundane circumstances, studying the role of witness memory in traffic accidents. It turns out that asking witnesses how fast cars were going before they smashed into each other, for example, will yield consistently higher accounts than asking how fast they were going before they merely hit each other, neatly demonstrating how just changing a word or two in a question might affect how people reported past experiences.
“I began to see these questions as pieces of misinformation that could contaminate or distort the witness’ memory, and my body of work more generally began to be about how post-event suggestion might contaminate memory. We ultimately called this phenomenon The Misinformation Effect.”
Loftus went on to become an expert memory witness at hundreds of trials, casting scientifically demonstrated doubt on the reliability of eyewitness memory. But then, in 1990, a new development occurred, as she found herself testifying at the trial of George Franklin.
“This was my first ‘repressed memory’ case. Franklin was accused of murdering a little girl twenty years earlier based on nothing other than the claim of his grown-up daughter that she had witnessed the murder, repressed her memory, and now the memory was back.
“This man was prosecuted for this murder. And I thought to myself, ‘This idea of repression – what is it? What’s the evidence for it? Where did it come from?’ I started to look into that, and that’s how I got into this whole world of repression and psychotherapy – a world that I’d never been in before. I was reading the writings of psychotherapists, the practices of psychotherapy, and all about the supposed ‘memory-recovery techniques’ of psychotherapy.”
But to a scientist, such reflections are only the beginning. It’s one thing to say, “I know from my own research that human memory is potentially malleable, which makes me deeply sceptical of these particular psychotherapeutic techniques”, and quite another to try to invalidate those claims through independent experimentation. But that’s precisely what Elizabeth did.
In a stunning series of results, she concretely demonstrated that she could directly implant false memories herself into a highly significant percentage of human subjects.
Of course, this sort of research is little less than an ethical minefield. On the one hand, she felt compelled to create a false memory sufficiently rich and detailed that it would be analogous to the sorts of claims that were levelled at the likes of George Franklin. On the other hand, it’s hardly morally appropriate to convince someone of having experienced a deeply traumatic event, however scientifically and socially relevant it might one day prove to be in a broader context.
Elizabeth’s solution struck a solid balance between the two: interacting directly with the subject’s mother to establish the appropriate background, she tried to implant the specific false memory of being lost in a mall as a small child before being rescued by an elderly samaritan.
A whopping 25% of her sample group became convinced of the false memory, an experimental finding that has been repeated in many different forms and many different places over the past few decades.
Suffice it to say that some of of the practitioners and patients of repressed memory therapy were none too pleased by these results, and at times Elizabeth has received hate mail and even death threats.
But the scientific community has loudly made its voice heard. A recipient of countless awards and accolades, Elizabeth Loftus has been a veritable one- woman wrecking crew in firmly establishing the malleability of human memory.
But for Elizabeth, it’s not just about getting to the root of traffic accidents and courtroom accusations. It’s also about day to day life.
“I think one of the best things this has done for me is to make me more tolerant of the mistakes that friends or family members or other people around me make. When I hear what I think is a mistake, I don’t jump to the conclusion that they’re lying. I think to myself, ‘This could just be a memory distortion’.
“And when something appears in the news and somebody’s accusing somebody else, I’m aware of the fact that the thought a lot of other people have is, ‘Oh, that poor victim. What a vicious perpetrator.’
“But my first reaction is, ‘Hmmm. I wonder if that memory is real?’”
Howard Burton, firstname.lastname@example.org
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