For this week’s first impression post, I decided to watch Dr. Elizabeth Loftus’s fascinating TED talk about false memories. She began her talk by telling the story of a man named Steve Titus who had been incarcerated for rape based mainly on the victim’s testimony. The victim had originally identified the man from a photo lineup as closely resembling her rapist, but by the time the trial was held, she was convinced that he had, in fact, committed the crime. It was only later, when an investigative reporter tracked down the actual perpetrator, that Titus was released. Unfortunately, his life had been ruined and, while involved in litigation to seek reparation, he died of stress-related heart attack at the age of 35. This story is terribly sad to think about and unfortunately, it’s not all that uncommon. As Dr. Loftus mentioned, many people who are falsely convicted, where convicted based on misinformation given, intentionally or otherwise, by witnesses. I was particularly interested in this part of the talk and later references to this research’s applicability to criminal law because I am an enthusiastic fan of the true crime genre and I’ve seen or read about many cases in which eye witness testimony has proven to be partially or even entirely inaccurate.
As the talk went on, Dr. Loftus focused on two main topics, the concept of false memories and the possibility of their use to improve people’s lives. False memory does not seem to be all that farfetched to me. Unlike some people who would like to think otherwise, I am well aware that my recollection of events and details is often flawed in some way and my sister is always thrilled to point out such imperfections. When Dr. Loftus was talking about the so-called repressed memories that people were rediscovering or even the more benign “lost-in-the-mall” scenario implanted by researchers, it made a lot of sense to me. If you think back on your childhood, your life three years ago or even 3 months ago, there are going to be gaps which could be molded into false memories. For example, you can probably remember your address from when you were eight as well who you were living with, where you went to school, and possibly a friend or two, but you would be hard-pressed to name every student in your class or what your favorite color was unless those things had exceptional importance at the time. It probably wouldn’t be all that difficult to convince you that you had a best friend named Charlie or that your favorite color was blue if I asked you the right questions. In regard to traumatic repressed memories, I think it’s safe to say that many people would think it would be hard to falsify something like that but I’m not so sure. I happen to be extremely jumpy and flinch violently around unexpected movement or uninitiated physical contact. A psychotherapist might suggest that I was abused as a child and even though that’s not the case, there is a possibility that with enough time and trust in the therapist, I would develop a false memory.
The possibilities of using false memories to benefit people would be limited I think. It’s difficult to consider the pros and cons when the viability of such a method is in question. In an ideal setting, there would certainly be some positive ways to use this research. To use Dr. Loftus’s example, you could convince obese children that they enjoyed certain healthy foods. In this same vein, you could convince the child that they disliked unhealthy foods and behaviors. This research could also be helpful in rehabilitating people with addictions by creating negative memories of the addictive substance. Unfortunately, the main issue with this is that you are compromising the free will of an individual and you run the risk of falling down a slippery slope. The core of our identities is our memory and it is ethically, if not morally, wrong to alter someone’s identity without consent and possibly even with consent. While I would like to believe that this would only be used to help people, there are certainly some bad actors in the world and they could use this in a lot of harmful ways. That being said, I would like to point out again that it probably wouldn’t be possible to radically alter someone’s memory without the use of an extensive regime of drugs and conditioning. While I can see how you could create negative memories that would act as a deterrent to certain foods, I myself avoid sweet and sour chicken after a juvenile bout of food poisoning, I think it would be hard to create “warm, fuzzy feelings” that would have a positive effect on behavior. I don’t think that we generally attach certain feelings to food. We can associate feelings with situations that involve food such as family meals or dates, but I don’t get a particular feeling when thinking about cabbage or provolone. In general I think we are driven by physical stimuli when it comes to food. We eat food that tastes good, not necessarily food that is attached to any specific memories. My family always has green bean casserole at thanksgiving and I’ve always enjoyed thanksgiving, but I’ve never liked that casserole. There’s something about the combination of sour cream and green beans that makes me want to gag. If I had a fond memory of ranch dressing, it wouldn’t make me want to eat it any more or less because my feelings on it are rooted in my sensory present. To wrap things up, I think the study of memory and, specifically, false memory is fascinating, but I am skeptical about our abilities to manipulate it to our whims.