"Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, or whatever it is that you think you remember?" -- Elizabeth Loftus
What if some of your memories were not really accurate recollections of the events that actually occurred? What if some of those memories have been altered or tainted? How much do you trust your memory? If you completely trust all of your memories as you recall them, you should rethink your level of confidence in your ability to remember facts as they actually occurred.
I remember my best friend in high school and his uncanny ability to tell tales as if they were unquestionably accurate. He could nearly dupe me into believing any story he told because he spoke with such detail and absolute confidence. In fact, I cannot honestly recall whether or not some of the stories he has shared over the years are real or not. And I have the utmost confidence in my ability to accurately remember events as they occurred. Still, to this day, my memories about some of the events during my high school years are fuzzy due to my friend's ability to tell such believable tall tales. Fortunately, I can rest assured with the fact that I am most certainly not alone in feeling this way.
Elizabeth Loftus is a world-renowned researcher whom has spent a great deal of time and effort exploring the puzzling realities created by memories. Loftus, an oft-published researcher, contends that one should spend more time critically evaluating believed memories and less time succumbing to every reality created by one's memories. The vast majority of people believe events as they recall them without questioning the veracity of such recollections. In fact, most are adamant that their story is the correct one. Loftus claims "we all have memories that are malleable and susceptible to being contaminated in some way." In short, Loftus contends memories are "malleable," meaning they can be shaped or molded in a number of ways. Even contemplating on a memory can give one "perspective" about an event — thereby altering the memory in some fashion.
What is really going on with the brain when we recall memories?
Loftus explains how people retrieve memories: "When we remember something, we're taking bits and pieces of experience—sometimes from different times and places—and bringing it all together to construct what might feel like a recollection but is actually a construction. The process of calling it into conscious awareness can change it, and now you're storing something that's different. We all do this, for example, by inadvertently adopting a story we've heard…"
Think about that statement for a moment. We don't simply retrieve a memory that is completely intact, think about the memory, and then restore the memory. Each time one accesses a memory, he or she actually 'constructs' the memory from retrieved information. Simply recalling the memory into conscious awareness can alter the recollection to a certain degree. And the 'recollection' is permanently altered as one stores the said memory. Some studies have found that as many as 50% of participants develop a complete or partial false memory.
Can 'False Memories' Be Planted?
An incredible amount of research supports the notion that false memories can be planted within even unwilling subjects. Researchers, including Loftus, have used a technique called "false feedback" to plant false memories. Researchers were able to give false feedback (you got sick off strawberry ice cream as a child) to a subject that impacted future behavior. The subject who believed he or she got sick off strawberry ice cream as a child elicited a dislike for strawberry ice cream. Additional studies with alcohol have corroborated this finding.
A research article published by the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry found that misinformation can impact the memories of even highly trained soldiers. The study found that exposure to misinformation about a recently experienced, personally relevant, highly stressful event elicited inaccurate details of the account.
Another study published by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press elicited some incredible insight into the role of the neurological substrates in recalling memories and events. The study explored the notion that memory recall does not involve a veridical, fixed representation of an event but rather a reactivation of incomplete fragments that may be a compilation of a number of events. The study utilized neuroimaging techniques to explore which areas of the brain were activated when subjects recalled both true and false memories. "Overall, true and false memories showed similar brain activation, but could be distinguished by this reactivation. This was true only in the early regions of the sensory cortex."
False Memory Examples
Paul Ingram (1988) was a police officer accused of sexually abusing his two daughters but vehemently denied the accusations. Over a period of five months, he was interrogated numerous times by psychologists, police officers, and other professionals. Shortly after, he confessed to sexual abuse, rape and even being involved in a Satantic cult. He was later interviewed by memory expert, Dr. Richard Ofshe. Ofshe found that many of the memories that he formed were actually false memories created by the interrogation. Nevertheless, he went to jail and is still a registered sex offender.
In 1990, George Franklin became the first person convicted of murder by a witness who recovered "repressed memories" 20 years after the event. He spent 6 years in prison before experts found inconsistencies in his daughter's story. Experts discovered that she was hypnotized before testifying. Hypnosis likely created false memories in the girl's mind.
Although most false memories are merely harmless, the research pioneered by Elizabeth Loftus is groundbreaking and offers some incredible insight into the constructs responsible for memory recall. The latest research should at least caution one from maintaining unwavering confidence in one's memory. At the very least, recognize the inherent fallibility of reality as our memory recognizes it.
Watch Elizabeth Loftus' TED talk, The Fiction of Memory, below.