Many think the brain is like a computer and, as such, we store many memories completely and intact. When we try to remember, we think that what we remember is unquestionably true, that it is by experiencing the event that we remember.
However, this is not the case. Memories can be distorted over time, especially if we are talking about those associated with traumatic experiences. Given this, the next question is inevitable: Can our minds create false memories?
American psychologist and mathematician Elizabeth Loftus has dedicated her entire life to answering this question, motivated by the experience of a traumatic event in her youth and knowing how reliable witnesses of victims, accused and witnesses to crimes are. . Below we will dive into his life and research through a biography of Elizabeth Loftus.
Brief biography of Elizabeth Loftus
Elizabeth Loftus, born Elizabeth Fishman, was born on October 16, 1944 in Los Angeles, California. Her parents were Sidney and Rebecca Fishman. At just 14 years old, young Elizabeth experienced the death of her mother as a result of a drowning accident.
Rebecca Fishman’s death shocked her entire family and at the same time sparked young Elizabeth’s interest in memory. After the death of her mother, Elizabeth I didn’t remember much about the accident … had I put it down?
However, during the celebration of the 44th birthday of one of her uncles, a relative told Elizabeth that she was the first to see her mother’s lifeless body. Based on this, Elizabeth Loftus began to “remember” little things and was convinced they were true. But to her surprise, it was later confirmed that she was not the first in the corpse, but one of her aunts did.
Know this Loftus she was amazed at how she herself had been convinced of a story which, although apparently real, was nothing more than a conspiracy. Because of this, Elizabeth Loftus became interested in how human beings, from very little information and suggestions, are able to create false memories, false memories but so vivid that it is even indisputable that they are more than an invention.
In 1966, he received an Honors BA in Mathematics and Psychology from the University of Los Angeles. He would later enter Stanford University, where he would earn his doctorate. In the 1980s, he began to delve deeper into memory. During these years, he began to study various cases of child abuse and the functioning of long-term memory. I was very interested to know how the repressed memories related to the traumatic situation experienced by the victims emerged.
He did a lot of research and based on his findings, Loftus very critically questioned the ability of human beings to honestly retrieve memories and information, especially when those memories have been suppressed by a defensive mechanism of our own. mind. Throughout his career, the main focus of research has been to understand how information is semantically organized and gives rise to long-term memory.
Based on these results, Elizabeth Loftus felt that her work should have some social relevance, so that began to empirically study witness testimony in trials based on the misleading information paradigm. Thus, he began to lead a great deal of research into memory and the relation it has to the degree of reliability that a witness’s testimony can have in a trial.
Loftus’ research presented ample evidence that a person’s lived experiences can be altered by trying to remember, and appear real and reliable despite being a skewed memory. This is especially common in memories of childhood sexual abuse when they are retrieved both during forensic research and during psychotherapy.
Loftus’ memory visions
It is important to understand that when Elizabeth Loftus began her career in research in cognitive psychology, which studies memory among other things, she began to reveal new insights into the functioning of the brain and mental processes. Memory has been one of the most interesting subjects in this branch of psychology, being the basis of learning and even being a key aspect in giving people an identity.
But on top of that, the study of memory is of paramount importance in the judicial sphere: It is necessary to determine how reliable the memory of a witness is. Loftus focused on investigating the possibility that not only these people’s memories could be completely altered, but also that other people could introduce false memories to them. That is why Elizabeth Loftus was consulted as an expert witness and her work was used in the field of forensic research.
According to Loftus herself, the justice system is very concerned and is taking precautions to avoid contaminating physical evidence at the crime scene, such as hair, blood, semen, torn clothes … However, the same Precautions are not taken to prevent the memories of witnesses from being contaminated. Thus, during questioning, witnesses’ memories can be conditioned by asking leading questions, which can have an immense effect on their testimony.
Elizabeth Loftus’ career has been very controversial because her research has come to say that the testimony of victims, witnesses and even the accused himself is not entirely valid. As sincere as they may be during an investigation, there is no way to be sure their memories are genuine. They may have been manipulated by lawyers, investigators and even the judge himself may have accidentally influenced by asking a leading question.
But despite the controversy, Loftus is one of psychology’s most beloved figures. He has published over 20 books and nearly 500 scientific papers on false memory. In addition, he has received several distinctions, such as the “Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement” awarded by the APA. In 2002, she was recognized as one of the most influential psychologists on General Psychology’s list of the 100 Most Influential Researchers of the 20th Century, ranking 58th and being the highest ranked woman on the list.
The idea of memory in popular culture, and even in some professional circles, is that the brain functions like a computer. Based on this belief, memories remain stored and isolated from other mental processes and phenomena, becoming conscious when the time comes for us to remember this experience or knowledge. We believe that memory simply stores and retrieves files.
However, this is not the case. Although many memories are intact, sometimes they are inaccurate: they are memorized in fuzzy, distorted, and empty ways. To fill these gaps, we conspire, add false information subconsciously, or let ourselves be swayed by other people telling us what the facts were like, changing our memory and thinking this new version is the most reliable.
This fact had not been empirically demonstrated until Elizabeth Loftus explored it. Through his experiments he has shown that memories are not something that is kept intact and that they can be mixed with others to the point of changing completely, thus creating false memories.
The automotive experience (Loftus and Palmer, 1974)
One of the most famous experiments on memory was that carried out by Elizabeth Loftus and JC Palmer with 45 volunteers to whom they were shown a recording showing two cars colliding with each other. After showing them this recording, the researchers discovered something really curious thing.
After viewing the recording, volunteers were asked to remember what they had seen. For that, they used a very specific sentence to tell them that they had to evoke what they had seen:
“How fast were the cars going when … together?”
“How fast were the cars going when … between them?”
Here is the part in which some volunteers and others received subtly different instructions. In some volunteers, the expression used contained the word “contacted”, while in others the same sentence was only used to replace this word with “hit”, “hit” or “hit”. The volunteers were asked to give their opinion on the speed at which the two vehicles they had seen were traveling..
As we said, all, absolutely all of the volunteers saw the same thing. However, Elizabeth Loftus noticed something really surprising, because when asked to remember what appeared in the video, the phrase used changed their memories. People who had been instructed with the words “contacted” and “struck” said the vehicles were traveling at a slower speed than those with a sentence containing the words “collided” or “crashed” .
In other words, the degree of shock intensity suggested by the words used by the research team influenced the perception of speed. In the minds of the participants, the memory of the scene they had seen changed. With this experiment, Loftus and Palmer provided evidence of how information given in the present can alter memories of past events.
The shopping center experience (Loftus and Pickrell, 1995)
Another very famous Loftus experience is that of the mall, an experience that proved that it was possible to introduce false memories by something as simple and non-intrusive as suggestion. This research was more complicated, because to carry it out, it was necessary to have personal information about the lives of the volunteers. For this, Loftus had the help of friends and family of the participants.
During the first phase of the research, the volunteers were told, one by one, four anecdotes about their childhood. Three of these memories were real, data counted by people close to the volunteers; however, the fourth memory was totally false. More precisely, it was about the story of how participants got lost in a mall when they were little, Totally fictitious story.
The next phase took place a few days later. The volunteers were interviewed again and asked if they remembered anything about the four stories they were told in the first part of the survey. One in four people said they remembered something about what happened when they got lost in the mall, a memory which, as we mentioned, was totally fictional.
But in addition, when one of the four stories they were told was revealed to be false, They were asked to guess what the fiction was. Many were right and knew how to view the mall, but 5 of 24 participants gave the wrong answer. Really these 5 people thought they got lost in the little mall, having very vivid and real memory.
This research showed that with very little effort, Loftus and other researchers were able to squeeze a false memory into participants’ memories.
Implications of these surveys
These experiments were able to show that, contrary to what ordinary people believe, memories are not kept intact. They can be easily changed on purpose, either by using specific questions, false information, or by suggesting a reliable person to the person. They can also be modified by post-event experiences to remember or even by our emotions. It is truly revealing and frightening that it is possible to push totally wrong scenes into someone’s mind and believe them as if they were absolutely real.
- Loftus, EF and Palmer, JC (1974). Reconstruction of automobile destruction: example of the interaction between language and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13, 585-589.
- Yuille, JC and Cutshall, JL (1986). An eyewitness crime memory case study. Journal of Applied Psychology, 71 (2), 291.
- Loftus, EF; Pickrell JE (1995). “The Formation of False Memories” (PDF). Psychiatric annals. 25 (12): 720-725. doi: 10.3928 / 0048-5713-19951201-07. Filed of the original (PDF) on 03-12-2008. Accessed 01-01-2009.