Memories Not So Reliable After All

Paper trails and electronic logs are all well and good, but it’s eyewitness testimony that really seals the deal.

But it probably shouldn’t be the case.

New research is showing that the human memory is a lot less like a reliable camera recording everything that happens and then transcribing it back unchanged and a lot more like a game of telephone with a bunch of drunks passing the information along down the line. Although that might be a bit insulting to the drunks.

Elizabeth  Loftus is a cognitive psychologist and expert on the malleability of human memory. You might remember her from the hullaballoo her work has caused in the past. Or maybe not.

Her first big foray into the public consciousness was when she began researching car wrecks in the early 1970s. She would show video of car collisions and then ask questions of the viewers. Even though they saw the same thing, the subjects certainly didn’t see the same thing.

Their answers depended greatly on how she phrased the question. For instance, if she asked how fast the cars were going when they “smashed” into each other, people estimated, on average, that the cars were going 7 mph faster than when she substituted the word “hit” for “smashed.” And a week after seeing the video, those who were asked using the word “smashed” remembered seeing broken glass, even though there was none in the film.

When she asked the subjects about “a broken headlight,” only a few remembered seeing one, even though there were no broken headlights before the collision. When she asked about “the broken headlight,” people were much more likely to misremember it as being present.

In the mid 1990s, Loftus again bloomed in the public eye when her research showed the hazards and pitfalls of believing in the truth of repressed memories. Those are memories that are so traumatic that the person pushes them down and completely forgets about them. Until a skillful therapist begins working with them and bringing the truth out.

It was Loftus’ contention, backed by research, that these memories were, rather than being repressed by the patient, actually being created by the therapist.

“I don’t think there’s any credible, scientific support for this notion of massive repression,” Loftus says. “It’s been my position that, you know, we may one day find (the evidence), but until we do, we shouldn’t be locking people up.”

There’s even some current talk about how dudes can learn to lose weight by using false memories. In the past, Loftus has caused people to create false memories of getting sick from eating strawberry ice cream as a child. This has caused the folks to swear off the sweet stuff. Could we use that to help our adult selves, or even growing selves, rethink how we approach food?

It’s some really fascinating stuff. The CNN article where I found most of this stuff has some more great information in it, including a fascinating discussion on whether or not people would choose to take a drug that would demolish a highly traumatic memory. Go read it. Definitely worth your time.


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