A memory expert's indestructible past.

The future of false memories.
May 25 2010 7:14 AM

Removable Truths

A memory expert's indestructible past.

Loftus as a baby with her mother, who died 14 years later. Click image to expand.
Loftus as a baby with her mother, who died 14 years later
William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

In the fall of 1991, Elizabeth Loftus sat in her office at the University of Washington, listening to a tape-recorded story. The storyteller, a 14-year-old boy named Chris Coan, was describing a visit to the University City shopping mall in Spokane, Wash., when he was 5. "I think I went over to look at the toy store, the Kay-Bee toys," he recalled. "We got lost, and I was looking around and I thought, 'Uh-oh. I'm in trouble now.' " He remembered his feelings: "I thought I was never going to see my family again. I was really scared, you know. And then this old man, I think he was wearing a blue flannel, came up to me." The man, old and balding with glasses, helped Chris find his parents.

It was a vivid story, told with sincerity and emotion. But the events Chris described had never happened. Chris's elder brother, Jim, had made it up as an assignment for Loftus' cognitive psychology class. Jim, pretending the story was real, had fed Chris the basics—the name of the mall, the old man, the flannel shirt, the crying—and Chris, believing his brother's fabrication, had filled in the rest. He had proved what Loftus suspected: If you were carefully coached to remember something, and if you tried hard enough, you could do it.  

And this was just the beginning. In the years to come, Loftus and her colleagues would plant false memories of all kinds—chokings, near-drownings, animal attacks, demonic possessions—in thousands of people. Their parade of brainwashing experiments continues to this day.

Why?

Forty years ago, when Loftus came out of graduate school, most people thought of memory as a recording device. It stored imprints of what you had experienced, and you could retrieve these imprints when prompted by questions or images. Loftus began to show that this wasn't true. Questions and images didn't just retrieve memories. They altered them. In fact, they could create memories that were completely unreal.

Most of the time, this didn't matter. If Uncle Pete hadn't really caught that 18-inch trout, so what? But in court, it mattered. Men were going to jail based on contaminated eyewitness testimony. Families were being ruined by charges of incestuous abuse drawn from memories concocted in therapy.

Loftus set out to prove that such memories could have been planted. To do so, she had to replicate the process. She had to make people remember, as sincerely and convincingly as any sworn witness, things that had never happened. And she succeeded. Her experiments shattered the legal system's credulity. Thanks to her ingenuity and persistence, the witch hunts of the recovered-memory era subsided.

But the experiments didn't stop. Loftus and her collaborators had become experts at planting memories. Couldn't they do something good with that power? So they began to practice deception for real. With a simple autobiographical tweak—altering people's recollections of childhood eating experiences—they embarked on a new project: making the world healthier and happier.

It was almost a kind of forgetting. You start doing something to show how dangerous it is. Pretty soon, you're good at it. It becomes your craft, your identity. You begin to invent new applications and justifications for it. In changing others, you change yourself.

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To understand Elizabeth Loftus, I spent many hours reading her work and talking with her. I came away impressed by her thoughtfulness and curiosity. I was shaken, as others have been, by her research on memory's fallibility. But I was struck even more by Loftus herself. Something has happened to her. She is grappling with something nobody has fully confronted before: the temptation of memory engineering.

This is the story of a woman who has learned how to alter the past as we know it. It's a fantastic power: exciting to some, frightening to others. What will we do with it? How will it change us? In her story, we can begin to see what awaits us.

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Beth Fishman, the girl who would become Elizabeth Loftus, was born in October 1944.   She grew up in Bel Air, Calif., the daughter of a Santa Monica doctor. When she was 6, a baby-sitter molested her. He stroked her arms and told her to keep "our secret." Then he led her to her parents' bedroom, took off her clothes, and rubbed his genitals against hers. She never told her parents what had happened. She didn't forget it, but she put it behind her. In her mind, she wrote later, her abuser was "gone, vanished, sucked away. My memory took him and destroyed him."  

In her adolescent years, she kept a diary and feared that somebody might read it. In fact, her boyfriend did try to read it. Other girls solved this problem by censoring their diaries. But Beth had a better idea. When she wanted to say something deeply painful or private, she recorded it on a separate piece of paper and clipped it to her diary. That way, if her boyfriend asked to read the diary, she could unclip the attached notes before handing it over. They were, as she described them later, "my removable truths."

Removing truths from a diary was one thing. Removing them from history or memory was another. Once, Beth heard that a boyfriend had broken up with her because she was Jewish. Hoping that he would reconsider, she asked a friend to tell him, falsely, that she was only half-Jewish. The lie proved no more forgettable than the truth. Fifty years later, during a speech in Israel, she would burst into tears as she recalled this fabrication. "Which of my parents did I deny then?" she asked. "Which half of me did I throw away for such a cheap price?"

When Beth was 14, her mother drowned in a swimming pool. The obituary called it an accident, but Beth's father suspected suicide. Only God knew the truth, and the bereft girl decided that God, having failed to intervene, was a fiction. What had really happened? No one would ever know.

Loftus watching her house burn.
Loftus watching her house burn

For a year afterward, Beth wrote letters to her dead mother, telling her how much she missed her. She excoriated herself for having failed to express her love when it mattered. In one of her removable notes, she wrote,

"MY GREATEST REGRET: Many nights, such as tonight, September 23, 1959, I lie awake and think about my mother. Always, I start to cry, and my thoughts trace back to the days when she was alive and ill. She would be watching TV and ask me to come sit by her. 'I'm busy now,' was my usual reply. Other times, she would be in my room, and we would get in fights because she wouldn't leave. Oh, how I hate myself for that! With a little bit of kindness from her only daughter she might have been so much happier."

But the girl couldn't change what she had done. Nor could she unclip the note and make her mother's death, or the pain that followed it, go away.

Loftus on the beach in Hawaii, age 17. Click image to expand.
Loftus on the beach in Hawaii, age 17

Two years after she lost her mother, Beth lost her home. A brush fire destroyed her house while sparing the rest of the block. She stood outside the burning building, clutching a Teddy bear and staring at the flames. Around her, rescued by neighbors, lay the remains of her childhood: chairs, drawers, stuffed animals. So much had been lost. What tortured her most was the disappearance of her diaries, which, to her relief, she eventually recovered. She wasn't afraid of losing them to the fire. She was afraid that they might fall into somebody else's hands.

A weaker girl might have crumbled under these losses. But Beth pressed on. She became a workaholic and obsessive achiever. She threw herself into math, the one subject she could get her father to talk about. Then, as an undergraduate at UCLA, she discovered something more captivating: the study of the mind.

People were much more interesting than numbers. In their actions and reactions, the laws of nature came to life. Her favorite psychologist was B.F. Skinner. From his writings and experiments, she learned that rewards and punishments could control and explain animal behavior. By systematically rewarding a behavior, you could reinforce it.

She was fascinated. But what excited her most was watching the process unfold in her own hands. She was given a rat and a cage—a "Skinner box"—in which to train it. By selectively administering food during a series of repetitions, she taught the rat to look at, then approach, then press a lever. By the time she was done, the rat had learned to run straight to the lever as soon as it was put in the cage. She had made the animal do her bidding.

In 1966, she entered Stanford's graduate program in mathematical psychology. She might as well have walked into a men's locker room. She was the only woman admitted to the program that year. All her professors were men. Her classmates unanimously voted her least likely to succeed as a psychologist. They placed bets on when she'd quit. The betting pool turned out to be a damning test of mathematical psychology. Its abstract equations, designed to explain and predict behavior, couldn't account for the particulars of this young woman. She had lost her home and her mother. Compared with that, exams were easy.  

She soon outgrew the boys' game. The deeper she waded into mathematical psychology, the less she liked its simplifications. People were more complicated than that. So was she. In her second year at Stanford, she was assigned to mentor an incoming student. She married him instead. On June 30, 1968, she became Elizabeth Loftus.

She thought she had found the love of her life. She would serve her husband's career, just as her mother had done for her father. But then she fell in love again. Not with a person, but with a field of study: memory. Next: Leading the Witness. To learn more about recent experiments in memory editing, see our excerpts of the best coverage on the Web. Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:

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