We can remember it for you wholesale

The Guardian reports on something that is both interesting and potentially very horrifying if the wrong people start reading 1984- the claim of a UC Irvine researcher that "We can implant entirely false memories".

[...] Elizabeth Loftus, a UCI psychologist [...] has been obsessed with the subject of memory and its unreliability since Richard Nixon was sworn in as president. Early on in her research, she would invite people into her lab, show them simulated traffic accidents, feed them false information and leading questions, and find that they subsequently recalled details of the scene differently - a finding that has since been replicated hundreds of times.

More recently, she has come to believe that lab studies may underestimate people's suggestibility because, among other things, real life tends to be more emotionally arousing than simulations of it. So these days she takes her investigations outside the lab. In a study soon to be published, she and colleagues describe how a little misinformation led witnesses of a terrorist attack in Moscow in 1999 to recall seeing wounded animals nearby. Later, they were informed that there had been no animals. But before the debriefing, they even embellished the false memory with make-believe details, in one case testifying to seeing a bleeding cat lying in the dust.

"We can easily distort memories for the details of an event that you did experience," says Loftus. "And we can also go so far as to plant entirely false memories - we call them rich false memories because they are so detailed and so big."


Elizabeth Loftus' research has obvious implications for the reliability of eyewitness testimony. And it was as a result of her findings that in 1994 she co-wrote her book, The Myth of Repressed Memory, and took a strong stand in the recovered memory debate of the 90s, for which she was reviled by those who claimed to have uncovered repressed memories of abuse - alien, sexual or otherwise.

The American Psychological Association (APA) now takes the line that most people who were sexually abused as children remember all or part of what happened to them, and that it is rare (though not unheard of) that people forget such emotionally charged events and later recover them. But it states that, "Concerning the issue of a recovered versus a pseudomemory, like many questions in science, the final answer is yet to be known." And the debate simmers on. Several new lines of evidence suggest that the interaction between memory and emotion is more complex than was thought. Powerful emotions, it seems, can both reinforce and weaken real memories. We may be able to actively degrade painful memories. And false memories, once accepted, can themselves elicit strong emotions and thereby mimic real ones.

Aside from calling into question the reliability of eyewitness reports (known in other parts as "truth on the ground"), the article suggests yet another reason why mass democracy is probably a really bad idea- people are very suggestible, and in the face of incomplete information quickly and readily "fill in the gaps", and, most distressingly, will remember something more if an inflammatory or emotional word is thrown in before it (and forget the word or phrase that came before the emotional word). Of course, political spinmeisters, propagandists, and hucksters of all types have known and acted upon this fact for centuries. So when someone shows you a popular poll, I'd say to keep all of this in mind....

The article ends sounding the Orwellian warning chime:

The idea of doctors having the power to wipe the memory clean sends shivers down many people's spines. False memories could safely be erased, perhaps, assuming there was a reliable way of differentiating them from true ones. Although brain-imaging techniques highlight some differences in patterns of brain activation when a person recalls a true as opposed to a false memory, these are statistical differences only. "We are so far away from being able to use these techniques to reliably classify a single memory as being real or not real," says Loftus, "Yet that is what the courts have to do."

True memories, too, can get out of control and become destructive, leading to PTSD and other anxiety disorders. But they start out as an important self-defence mechanism - teaching you, for instance, that too many hard-boiled eggs are bad for you. Erasing them completely could be dangerous.

In the end, says Loftus, it will come down to personal choice. "What would you rather be in the world, sadder but wiser, all too well remembering the horrors of your past and feeling depressed, or perhaps not remembering them very much and being a little happier?"

As an aside, too often the choice above seems to be the one that comes up over and over again, in different guises. For contemporary social democracy, the choice is whether people would rather be in the world, less 'secure' but free, facing the trials of everyday life through individual effort and civil arrangements, or perhaps not minding them very much by voting one's self a nice comfy gilded cage with nice masters to care for you.

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