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As the pioneering work of Elizabeth Loftus shows, memory is fallible – and can, in fact, be replaced ...
2022-01-17 09:00:00

The Fabricating Mind
When Memory Fails You

Photo by Luke Holwerda, Origins Project Foundation
The Fabricating Mind
The Fabricating Mind

The imagination is not only instrumental in thinking about the future, it’s also involved in recalling the past. In other words, one can never be certain if a thing remembered is a thing that really happened. This phenomenon has been confirmed by numerous studies, forensic investigations, and one uncompromising cognitive scientist.

Read in 8 minutes

Professor Elizabeth Loftus has been called a protector of criminals, an outcast of the scientific world, and even an enemy of humankind because of her discoveries. Still, these same discoveries have landed her on the list of the one hundred most influential psychological researchers of the twentieth century, according to the Review of General Psychology—a highly-esteemed journal published by the American Psychological Association, and the United States’ biggest organization in the field.

Her very first study, which she began in the early 1970s, turned all existing understanding regarding the mechanisms of memory and recall upside down. Trial participants watched recordings of car accidents selected from police archives, and were then asked to answer random questions; about the speed the depicted vehicles were going when they either  smashed, collided, bumped, hit or contacted each other. The slight difference in wording was enough to trigger the imagination of the participants and affect their recollections. Those asked about totaled cars cited higher speeds than those asked about minor fender benders. Additionally, when participants had to describe the scene of the accident, those from the “smashed cars” group would mention additional elements, such as broken windows, when in fact there were none. Their memory deceived them. In this way, an unknown scholar in the then-fledgling field of cognitive sciences proved that eyewitness testimony—crucial in many legal investigations and given under oath in court—may in fact depend on something as trivial as how a question is phrased.

False Memories

In the 1970s and 80s, it was already clear that no single part of the brain is responsible for remembering, as was assumed even half a century ago. It also became apparent that one of the main sites for the formation of memories is the hippocampus. Research on the processing and storing of memories had been going on for years. The mechanisms of forgetting were known, and several types of amnesia had already been identified. Nevertheless, it was still uncertain what processes occur when recalling the past.

Memory is often imagined as a huge library, in which events from our past are arranged from floor to ceiling. Whenever one wishes to recollect something, the metaphor suggests, it is enough to reach for the correct shelf, find the dormant memory, and bring it into consciousness. However, as Loftus argued around fifty years ago, human memory does not work this way at all. Memories are not recalled but rather reconstructed from tiny fragments, like a collage or a mosaic. We do not recreate the past, but reinvent it, sometimes unwittingly adding new details. Memories are delicate, she claimed, and we can inadvertently distort them. Subsequent experiments confirm this, including one study where participants were shown photographs of an ordinary magnifying glass, while simultaneously being asked to imagine a round lollipop. At a crucial, later stage conversations were held about these photographs and what they really represented. If participants were given a slight suggestion, they eventually could not say whether they saw a magnifying glass, a magnifying glass and a lollipop, or just a lollipop. The imagination would once again demonstrate its creative power. This would not be a big deal if it were limited to the scope of lenses and candy, but events that followed a dozen or so years after Loftus’s first discoveries demonstrated that memories can indeed be implanted. 

“In the 1990s, we began to see an even more extreme kind of memory problem,” Loftus argues in a 2013 TED Talk. “Some patients were going into therapy with one problem, maybe they had depression or [an] eating disorder, and they were coming out of therapy with a different problem—extreme memories for horrific brutalization, sometimes in satanic rituals, sometimes involving really bizarre or unusual elements. One woman came out of psychotherapy believing she had endured years of ritualistic abuse, where she was forced into pregnancy and that baby was cut from her belly, but there were no physical scars, or any kind of evidence that could have supported her story,” she continues. “When I began looking into these cases, I was wondering, ‘where do these bizarre memories come from?’ What I found is that most of these situations involved some particular form of psychotherapy, and so I asked, ‘were some of the things going on in this psychotherapy—like imagination exercises, or dream interpretation, or in some cases hypnosis, or exposure to false information—were these leading these patients to develop these very bizarre, unlikely memories?”

Memory Wars

In the mid-1970s, Loftus was already gaining popularity in the courts, becoming an ace eagerly pulled from the sleeves of defense attorneys. Her studies allowed them to undermine statements made by the witnesses, and even victims of crime. On almost every occasion, she would agree to appear in court as an expert witness to discuss false memories (reportedly refusing only once, in the trial of a Nazi war criminal). In the nineties, when the clients of therapists began “recovering repressed memories” in large numbers and an avalanche of court cases ensued, Loftus was seen as an ally of criminals. She was attacked by psychotherapists, who worked in good faith to help their clients recollect events from their past, and by victims, seeking justice in the courts for their newly unearthed wrongs (one such case is described by Lawrence Wright in the book Remembering Satan: A Tragic Case of Recovered Memory). Even some scientists would turn their backs on Loftus, arguing that research is research, but there are limits. It may seem plausible that people can convince themselves that they saw a lollipop or broken glass at the scene of an accident, but not that they were tortured in childhood. It was simply inconceivable to cognitive experts that human memory could be so unreliable.

Loftus needed stronger evidence, which led her to design another study, this time concerning autobiographical memory. Mentally healthy and emotionally-stable adult participants were falsely convinced they had gotten lost in a shopping mall at age six or seven years old, as corroborated by complicit family members who agreed to confirm this “fact” for the purpose of the study. The psychologist conducting the experiment posed “supporting” questions: about how scared the participants were (suggesting that this was indeed the case), or the relief they felt after being found by an elder (another suggestion). Naturally, none of the participants could remember such an episode at first, but after some time, one in four would become able to “recall” it, even adding details of their own. For example, one subject could clearly recollect the flannel shirt of their savior. Such high numbers were surprising, even for the author of the study. Even more surprising were subsequent experiments carried out by other research teams. Respondents were asked about more emotionally-evocative childhood memories, such as being badly bitten by a dog or drowning in the sea. The results were even higher, showing that almost half of all participants became convinced that they had indeed experienced the false memory.

“It might seem we are traumatizing these experimental subjects in the name of science, but our studies have gone through thorough evaluation by research ethics boards,” Loftus adds. “[They] have made the decision that the temporary discomfort that some of these subjects might experience in these studies is outweighed by the importance of this problem for understanding memory processes, and the abuse of memory that is going on in some places in the world.”

The results, published in the mid-1990s, confirmed that she was right, but this did not put an end to the so-called “memory wars.” Police inquiries and press investigations, some lasting several or over ten years, revealed that innocent people had been charged and convicted in many trials based on “recovered memories.” Science prevailed but it was a painful victory. As Loftus admits, “I became part of a disturbing trend in America, where scientists are being sued for speaking out on matters of great public controversy.”


Memory and imagination are not at odds. On the contrary, they can help each other, and probably usually do. Thanks to modern brain imaging technology such as MRI, evidence shows that when subjects imagine the future, the same structures of the brain are activated as when recollecting things from the past. Cooperation between memory and imagination also facilitates constructing alternative scenarios of past events and indulging in “what ifs.” It’s a priceless skill that enables learning from mistakes.

What’s more, the controversial ability to form false memories can in fact be an advantage, Loftus claims. With a better understanding of the aforementioned psychological phenomenon, it could also be applied to more noble uses, such as the prevention of childhood and teenage obesity. Loftus publicly proposed, in earnest, to have children implanted with pleasant memories connected with the consumption of vegetables, and thus change their attitudes toward the idea of a healthy diet. Although this does sound like brainwashing, so too does convincing a five-year-old that Santa Claus will reward them with presents if they behave.

“Which would you rather have: a kid with obesity, diabetes, shortened lifespan, all the things that go with it, or a kid with one little extra bit of false memory,” Loftus asks rhetorically during her TED Talk. “I know what I would choose for a kid of mine, but maybe my work has made me different from most people. Most people cherish their memories, know that they represent their identity, who they are, where they come from. I appreciate it. I feel that way too, but I know from my work how much fiction is already in there.”

This article draws on the talk “How Reliable Is Your Memory”, given by Elizabeth Loftus at a TED conference in June 2013, the “The Memory Warrior” interview for the website, and the “Imagining the Future Is Just Another Form of Memory” article, published at

Translated from the Polish by Grzegorz Czemiel

This translation was re-edited for context and accuracy on May 12, 2022

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