“Our memories are constructive, reconstructive. Memory works… like a Wikipedia page: you can go in and change it, but other people can do it too.”
On September 22, 1969, just a few days before her ninth birthday, little Susan Nason was murdered in a small town in the state of California. Twenty-one years later, this case resurfaced resoundingly in the media.
Eileen Franklin, a childhood friend of Susan’s, claimed in late 1989 that she had recovered memories related to the murder that were repressed in her mind. They implicated her father, George Franklin, as the person responsible for the heinous crime. The consequences of this profusely detailed statement were devastating for this man, who spent several years in prison. But in 1996, doubts about the validity of his daughter’s testimony led to his acquittal.
In the 90s, this controversial case, together with the appearance of testimonies from people who said they remembered childhood traumas in the context of psychotherapy, focused the interest of scientists who investigate the reliability of memories, especially in the judicial field. .
We usually tend to consider that memory fails when we forget something. However, it can not only incur omissions, but is also capable of altering the integrity of existing memories. They are known as “false memories” and/or “false recognitions,” and they are as common as the annoying forgetfulness we experience.
Sometimes, these distortions are limited to small unimportant details, such as confusing who told us that they were going to raise our salary or the specific flavor of our birthday cake. But unfortunately, they can also have serious consequences on people’s lives, as we have seen with the murder of Susan Nason.
Why do we generate false memories?
One of the most widespread beliefs about human psychology is that our memory functions as a literal and exhaustive recording device that stores experiences in real time. To access a memory, we would simply activate our mental database and “play” the stored experiences.
But as the British scientist Frederic Bartlett stated in 1932, memories are not mere “literal replicas” of reality. Rather, they are the fabric of narratives that evolve and simplify over time. In this process, memory does not simply reproduce an experience, but rather “reconstructs” it through a complex amalgam of ingredients. This amalgam encompasses both real events and personal interpretations of events. Both are intertwined in the narrative to build a coherent story of our lives.
This reconstructive nature of memory is related to the generation of false memories. When experiencing an event, we selectively record those aspects of the scene that impact, motivate or excite us and, with them, we make the “movie” of that event. We do not retain all the details, but only fragments, which are connected to related information.
When we evoke that memory, the memory reconstructs the experience by combining fragments of similar experiences. And, in parallel, it fills in the gaps through inferences derived from our previous experience in analogous situations.
The contribution of Elisabeth Loftus
In 1974, Elisabeth Loftus, a prominent memory researcher at the University of California, led a pioneering study in this field of research.
After presenting short videos of traffic accidents to several groups of students, participants were asked to estimate “by eye” the speed of the vehicles at the time of the accident. The researchers asked questions using verbs that could implicitly suggest different speeds: “smash,” “hit,” “swipe,” etc.
The results revealed a significant influence of the “strength” of the verbs on speed estimates. These ratings were higher when a verb such as “smash” was used compared to, for example, “rub.”
Furthermore, when asked a few days later whether they remembered seeing broken glass in the videos, the members of the “smash” group claimed to remember them twice as often as the members of the “swipe” group. The fact was that those crystals did not appear in the recordings.
I have no more questions, your honor.
Being able to influence memory by introducing biased information into questions to a witness can be extremely damaging. In countries such as the United States, there have been alarming numbers of individuals convicted of crimes they did not commit, as a result of distortions in witnesses’ memories or even as a direct result of the application of inappropriate interrogation techniques.
In one of his famous TED talks, titled The fiction of memory, Elisabeth Loftus tells us how in some of her experiments she managed to implant false memories in adults. For example, she was able to convince them that they had gotten lost in a shopping center when they were children, simply by providing made-up details about that supposed (and false) event.
Other studies have managed to plant pseudomemories using manipulated photographs in which people appeared taking a hot air balloon ride when they were children, even though something like this had never happened.
It is important to note that some psychological techniques such as hypnosis have been very effective in convincing people to remember events in their lives that they have never experienced. This is probably explained because hypnosis encourages imagination, which is also a source of inspiration for false memories. How many times do we confuse reality with something we have simply imagined!
Another added problem with hypnotic suggestion is that it artificially increases confidence in the memories generated, which makes it even more likely that what only occurred in our imagination will be taken as real.
Is our memory really so defective?
Of course not. Despite its imperfections, human memory exhibits a remarkable capacity for adaptation and generally functions effectively in most situations. Its purely productive and reconstructive nature plays an essential role in helping us understand the environment around us, integrate our experiences and keep us updated in a constantly changing world.
However, this statement does not imply that we should ignore the fact that our memories are potentially fragile, malleable and susceptible to being distorted by many factors. Despite all this, and as Plato already told us, we have no shortage of reasons to boast of such a wonderful gift.