Memory & Manipulation

The trials of Elizabeth Loftus, defender of the wrongly accused

Look carefully and Loftus also appears as a consultant for the defense in the federal trial of Texas Tech professor Thomas Butler, a bioterrorism and bubonic-plague expert. He was accused of illegally importing vials of plague from Africa, contacting the FBI after several dozen vials went missing, and then, after three days of interrogation, admitting that, while he had no memory of the events, he might have accidentally destroyed the vials himself. Loftus argued that even an absent-minded and aging professor would remember if he had destroyed such an integral part of his own work. In the end, the jurors agreed and acquitted the 62-year-old Butler on the most serious charges.

In a simple conference room in one of UCI's 1960s-era tower blocs, Loftus and her students, who are for some reason overwhelmingly female, devise experiments to show just how manipulable memories can be. While they don't seek to replicate alien-abduction experiences or to insert images of sexual abuse into the minds of those never abused—even if they were unethical enough to want to attempt such experiments, they would never in a million years receive permission from the university to do so—they do seek to create an array of other memories of events that never occurred.

In an extra-credit homework assignment, for example, Loftus' students went home and said to younger siblings things as simple as "Hey, do you remember the time you got lost in the mall when you were five years old?" and then recorded the ways in which the "memory" would take on a life of its own in the succeeding days, becoming more vivid, more detailed, with each conversation. At a more advanced level, using research subjects in a lab, students successfully created memories of mildly traumatic childhood experiences—such as being temporarily separated from one's parents—that never actually occurred. One student even managed to generate a series of false memories in her research subjects about being licked on the ear by a Pluto character while visiting Disneyland decades earlier. In another experiment, to make sure they were dealing with false recollections rather than real ones, research assistants created memories about meeting Bugs Bunny at Disneyland, who in reality couldn't possibly have been in the theme park. The purpose of these mind games is to show that even the most vivid memory is not necessarily an accurate representation of past reality.

Not long ago, actor Alan Alda visited Loftus' lab while researching a television documentary on memory. Before he visited the lab, Loftus' team had Alda fill in a questionnaire about his eating history since childhood. Over the course of the morning Alda was in the lab, Loftus and her students then implanted a false memory in his head, subtly convincing him that a computer analysis of his questionnaire had determined that he had gotten sick from eating bad hard-boiled eggs when he was a young boy. Later, when they took the actor out for a picnic—a photograph of the event is tacked up on Loftus' office cork board—they monitored his food choices and, sure enough, he avoided the hard-boiled eggs they offered him.

Loftus' Irvine colleague Michael Rugg, an expert in the physiology of memory, believes that physiologically the same brain regions are activated when someone answers "yes" to something that is true as when someone answers "yes" to something that he believes to be true but that is actually false. In other words, physiologically, the truth is less important than an individual's perception of the truth. Ultimately, perhaps, it is this blending of interior and exterior realities that creates uniquely human forms of memory—that renders our minds forever different from those of the binary strings at the center of computer hard drives, that makes our vision of the world, our interaction with the world over time, so different from that of machines designed to manifest artificial intelligence.

Among the more bizarre examples of the tricks memory can play is the rash of vivid alien-abduction stories that has intrigued scientists and ufologists for several decades. While some experts accept at face value stories of men and women being removed from their beds in the middle of the night, taken aboard spaceships, being experimented upon and even made to have sexual intercourse with alien beings, most memory specialists have a somewhat different explanation. Harvard experimental-psychopathology professor Richard McNally, for example, has run two studies on alien abductees. He found that most reported a form of sleep paralysis known in the profession as hypnopompic episodes—essentially a state, experienced by up to 30 percent of the population at some point in their lives, when the body is physically asleep, part of the mind is still dreaming, but another part of the mind is conscious of being awake—and that most, while certainly not psychotic, did have a strong tendency toward beliefs outside of the mainstream. "They're not lying," McNally says of their experiences. "They're really sincere. They are, however, characterized by a range of New Age beliefs, by magical ideation—they tend to believe in past lives, crystals, reincarnation, alternative medicines. Second, they're high on absorption—they can become entranced by a sunset, absorbed in a novel, they had imaginary playmates as children."

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