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Thursday, October 31st 2013

The Falliability of Memory

I am fascinated by the faliability of memory. Especially episodic memory.

You and I really don’t remember what we think we remember. It is rarely accurate and yet people are utterly convinced of that their memory is accurate. There are obviously huge implications. Think criminal or civil law.

[Dr. Elizabeth] Loftus discovered that she could modify memories with startling ease. After showing a film of a crash, Loftus asked some volunteers if they “saw a broken headlight” and others if they “saw the broken headlight.” Those who got the latter question were twice as likely to say yes – though, in fact, the film showed no broken headlights.

Loftus was fascinated, and she soon turned her attention to criminal trials. Suspicious of the accuracy of eyewitness identifications, Loftus conducted an experiment in which volunteers looked at photographs of six faces while listening to a story of a crime.

One face was identified as the criminal, five as innocents. Three days later, Loftus showed the volunteers four photographs: one of an innocent character from the crime story, and three of new people. Sixty percent of volunteers identified the innocent character as the perpetrator from the story. They recognized a familiar face but muddled their associations with it.


One study in particular bolstered Loftus’ belief that much memory is malleable. In a now-famous experiment, Loftus told a volunteer that she had spoken with his mother and learned four things that happened to him as a 6-year-old.

She then ran through three real memories and one fake one. The volunteer sometimes claimed to remember the fake memory, which involved getting lost in a shopping mall then getting rescued by an elderly stranger. (Planting a more traumatic memory would be even more illuminating for psychologists, but researchers try to avoid permanently scarring their volunteers.)

Even odder, the volunteer would usually be happy to elaborate on this implanted memory. His panic, his confusion, his relief; it was all there, hidden away in his memory. Except that it wasn’t—it was all in his imagination. With just a small bit of coaxing, Loftus could insert this memory even into the most skeptical minds.

Or psychiatric illnesses.

Psychologists Miriam Lommen and colleagues studied 249 Dutch soldiers were deployed for a four month tour of duty in Afghanistan. As part of a study into PTSD, they were given an interview at the end of the deployment asking them about their exposure to various stressful events that had occurred. However, one of the things discussed was made up – a missile attack on their base on New Year’s Eve.


Eight of the soldiers reported remembering this event right there in the interview. The other 241 correctly said they didn’t recall it, but seven months later, when they did a follow-up questionnaire about their experiences in the field, 26% said they did remember the non-existent New Year’s Eve bombardment (this question had been added to an existing PTSD scale.)

Susceptibility to the misinformation was correlated with having a lower IQ, and with PTSD symptom severity.

I think this is one of the most fascinating parts of not just cognitive study but all of neuroscience.

Functional neurosurgery may hold promises to improve memory, not just in pathology (such as dementia), but in normal individuals. Initial studies show poor episodic improvement, but who knows what the future holds. And I wonder the implications of that for these “false” memories.