By Kyle Hill via Scientific American Blog Network
True memories fade and false ones appear.
Each time we recall something, the memory is imperfectly re-stitched by our brains. Our memories retain familiarity but, like our childhood blankets, can be recognizable yet filled with holes and worn down with time.
To date, research has shown that it is fairly easy to take advantage of our fallible memory. Elizabeth Loftus, cognitive psychologist and expert on human memory, has found that simply changing one word in a question can contort what we recall. In one experiment, Loftus had participants watch a film of a car crash, and then asked about what they saw. They were either asked “How fast were the cars going when they hit each other,” or “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other.” One week later the participants returned for some memory questions. Loftus asked whether or not there was broken glass at the scene of the accident. Those participants that heard the word “smashed” were more than twice as likely to recall seeing broken glass than those who heard the word “hit.” Keep in mind, there was in fact no broken glass at the scene.
This kind of insight—that our memories are terrible camcorders of reality—had serious pop culture ramifications. “Repression” and “repressed memories” have entered our culture’s lexicon, without evidential support. Even with numerous accusations of sexual abuse and other childhood horrors filed in court with the explosion of “recovered memory therapy,” the same research pioneered by experts like Loftus has suggested that most if not all of these “repressed” memories are merely false ones. At CSICon, a skeptic’s conference earlier this year in Nashville, Tennessee, Loftus herself noted that the same techniques used to implant false memories in psychological experiments are precisely the techniques used by repression therapists to recover supposedly buried traumas.
Nearly four decades later, Loftus and colleagues aim to further memory science once again. Introducing a false memory in experiment can be done quickly and with some degree of reliability, but how long does the lie last? Surely bolstered by a digital age reverberating with misinformation, the results point to a disturbingly long half-life of lies.