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Your Memory: Fact or Fiction?

“It is an unsettling fact that we can manufacture, wholesale and out of pure nothingness, whole events and pasts that never occurred.” – Elizabeth Loftus

Elizabeth Loftus, cognitive psychologist and memory manipulation expert, has spent the last 40 years studying long term, episodic memory — the memories of the episodes of our lives.

Our memories, it turns out, are pretty complicated constructs. So, before we start this little walk down the memory lane in your brain, here’s a brief tutorial:

Memory 101

Long term memory is divided into two subcategories: implicit and explicit.

Implicit memories do not require conscious thought, they allow us to do things automatically or by rote — like ride a bike, type, button a shirt, etc. This is also called procedural memory.

Episodic memories, the kind Elizabeth Loftus studies, are explicit memories. These memories require conscious thought — like remembering what you had for dinner last night or what you wore two days ago. The memories are autobiographical — any memory in which we personally play a part in the episode or scene of life is an episodic memory.

Another type of explicit memory is called semantic memory, which is the general knowledge we learn throughout our lives (math facts, the capitals of the states, etc…). These memories, like implicit memories, are not dependent on episodic memory.  However, semantic and episodic memories are inter-dependent.  Our semantic memories provide the framework for our episodic memories.  For example, our semantic memory contains the information that the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001 and our episodic memory contains the specific memory of where we were, what we were doing, who we were with and how we felt when it happened.

Your Autobiographical Memory — Can You Trust It?

Most people implicitly trust their episodic memories. It’s hard not to; after all, we were there. However, Loftus’ work has revealed that human episodic memory is not nearly as robust as we’d like to believe, even in the healthiest of brains. In fact, episodic memory is both fragile and malleable.

One of the most startlingly findings is the ability to “implant” memories into people — so that they are convinced they have experienced events that did not, in fact, happen.

False memory implantation is not the only way people’s memories can be changed. It turns out we do it all the time, all on our own. Loftus compares this process to the creation of a Wikipedia page… to which we can make edits to our own memories, and others can make their own contributions.

This has tremendous repercussions:

From the frustrated parent who is convinced that their child is lying; to the perhaps wrongly convicted criminal, whose incarceration is based on “eyewitness” testimony.

In fact, the primary cause of wrongful convictions, according to Loftus, is faulty human memory leading to eyewitness error.

Some have even speculated that NBC’s Brian Williams may have been a victim of his own “mis-remembering”  —  experiencing a sort of memory hijacking in which people develop personal memories about events they have heard about. With repetition, over time, the borrowed memories can become part of the autobiographical memory.

But Why?

Over the course of her career, Loftus has often wondered why humans are built with a memory that is so malleable. She theorizes that our memory flexibility — in spite of its fallibility, is not a bad thing. In fact, it may help us to navigate the world more effectively.

One benefit to memory distortions is that they may help us to feel better about ourselves. We may remember that we did better in school, got better grades than we really did. If there is any merit to the self-fulfilling prophecy — which research suggests there is –then this could work to our benefit.

Sometimes, our personal memories are incomplete, they may be missing certain facts and particulars. Our flexible memory allows us to fill in the gaps — updating a specific memory with details, ideas and suggestions from the actual event, as well as with information acquired later — creating a smooth, seamless memory… a memory which becomes a reference point to inform subsequent life experiences.

This is perhaps the most interesting facet of our memory malleability — how it enables us to plan for the future. Endel Tulving, one of the first cognitive neuroscientists to distinguish semantic and episodic memories, likens the human, episodic memory to a time machine that allows us to consciously re-experience past experiences, which we can then use to travel into the future, informing current thoughts and future actions.

The same neuronal circuitry that enables us to remember and almost viscerally re-experience past historical events also allows us to leap into the future, planning for an as-yet-unexperienced event — anticipating likely encounters based on previous experiences.

We are able to forecast, to imagine an alternative reality that is different from the way things currently are. It seems that episodic, neuronal flexibility is not (and perhaps cannot be?) unidirectional – allowing only for forward thinking. Those pliable pathways work bidirectionally, thus creating memory cooptation opportunities.

Party Parlour Tricks

So how does it work? How does a false memory become implanted? Is this something we could do to our unsuspecting friends at a party?

According to Loftus, the trick is to ground the false memory in a bit of reality and then lead the individual through some suggestive questioning about another entirely false event, simultaneously implanting that event as a memory.

A person is primed for memory manipulation by being asked to recall events from the past… true events. Loftus and other researchers have conducted several studies that test memory implantation, following a similar protocol whereby three real-life past events are discussed with study participants — the facts of the events are obtained from family members. Then, another completely fictional account is introduced as an historical experience.

In one study, through suggestive questioning and other techniques like guided imagery and false feedback, Loftus reported she and her colleagues have been able to implant “rich false memories” into about a quarter of ordinary, healthy study participants. Participants were implanted with the memory of being lost at a shopping mall when they were children — an event that never actually happened.

“We can visualize things, we can draw inferences of what could [have] happened or might have happened and sometimes those visualizations can get converted into something that feels like a genuine memory.”

Other studies have had an even higher false memory implantation rate — with as many as 50 percent of participants “owning” untrue events.

But it Feels so Real…

But surely, false memories would not evoke the same sort of emotional response as real ones — providing us with a tip-off as to what is real and what isn’t… right?


According to Loftus, emotion associated with a memory is no guarantee that the memory is real.

Recently, some of Loftus’ graduate students examined this theory by planting false memories in subjects and compared their emotionality to that of people who truly did experience the event. On most emotional dimensions, true and false memories were indistinguishable.

Okay, so what about people with exceptional memories? Can their robust synapses withstand the suggestive implantation? Loftus says that, yes, people who typically have lapses in memory and attention are more susceptible to manipulation.

But bizarrely, people known for having exceptionally good autobiographical memories, for being able to remember the most minute details of their everyday lives, were found to be just as susceptible to memory contamination as those with more run-of-the-mil memory recall — even when accounting for age.

So, How Can We Know For Sure?

In a world where information can go viral with a click of a button, how do we protect ourselves from “lies” — if we can’t even rely on our memories?

Loftus suggests that the first step is education. This is especially important in the judicial system, where life changing decisions are often based on eyewitness testimony.

People in general — and judges and jurors in particular — need to be aware of the fallibility of memories. Expert testimony, like that which Loftus has provided in the past, should be made available, presenting scientific information regarding memory malleability.

Currently, a debate is raging as to whether to allow police officers to review video records of criminal incidents prior to writing incident reports or providing statements and/or court testimony … in an effort to prevent mis-remembering.

Proponents suggest that just as eyewitnesses are allowed to refer to documents, notes, etc. to corroborate their statements, police officers would also benefit from viewing a video recording of the event.

Naysayers are concerned that misbehaving officers might use the video to help them create a report that benefits them or supports their case — whether it be by providing background information that might allow them to dupe a review board and cover up questionable actions or misdeeds — or flat out fabricate details of an event and yet still be substantiated by video.

The video recordings themselves may possess several limitations — they generally provide footage of only a portion of the incident, and thus may lack context; they are two-dimensional and so may not accurately represent distance or depth of field of the event; and light levels as shown in the recording may be different than those experienced in the actual event.

However, just as an eyewitness is vulnerable to the malleability of memory, so is the reporting officer. Some have suggested that it would be difficult for an officer involved in a “fluid, complex, dynamic, and life-threatening encounter to remember peripheral details beyond the one which he or she was focused.” Anyone — police officers included — could potentially miss a large portion of the action in a stressful event, and be completely unaware of what they did not pay attention to.

Beneficial Brainwashing with Manufactured Memories

Accuracy aside, can mis-remembering actually be used “for good?” Is it a kind of superpower that can be developed to help people overcome obstacles? Loftus suggests it may have that potential. Her recent work investigates using implanted memories to influence and modify future behavior.

She and her colleagues have been successful in implanting subjects with the memory of becoming ill after eating particular foods as children, so that later they are less likely to eat those foods. Similarly, after convincing people that they became sick drinking vodka, they decline to drink as much of it later. Loftus suggests it would be possible to implant “warm fuzzy” feelings toward eating healthy food.

The ethical questions associated with memory manipulation are profound. The idea that our identities — themselves so intimately entangled with our memories — are at risk of contamination is quite unsettling. But it’s a broad social conversation that should begin now, while memory-manipulation technologies remain in their infancy.

In the meantime, what should we take away from all this?

Loftus herself has become a “memory skeptic,” which she says has helped her to become more tolerant of others’ memory mistakes…

So, maybe we should cut Brian Williams some slack, after all.

Special thanks to Elizabeth Loftus, for generously sharing her “semantic” knowledge of our “episodic” memories with Smart Drug Smarts.  Wait…that Skype interview really did happen, didn’t it?  We didn’t just imagine it?


  1. Barry McCullers says:

    that was an inspirational read, you give me hope in our future!
    You were smart, informational, spot on. The read was truly like music or eating a comfort food.
    Your no joke lady! WOW??

    1. Michelle Silbernagel says:

      Hi Barry,
      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. It was fun and fascinating to research and write. Writing while learning really keeps the neurons lit up. Hope to do much more.

      1. Hi Michelle
        I’m very interested in further study on the subject.
        Please share with me how I can dive deeper.
        Barry McCullers
        [email protected]

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