Finding good uses for mental manipulation.

The future of false memories.
May 31 2010 6:55 AM

The Road to Therapy

Finding good uses for mental manipulation.

Elizabeth Loftus warmed to the idea of memory tampering for the best of reasons. She wanted to help people.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

Loftus introduced the "memory doctor" in her 1980 book Memory. Click image to expand.
Loftus introduced the "memory doctor" in her 1980 book Memory

In her official career, as she described it in books, she studied the art of mental manipulation only to dissect, expose, and defeat it. Occasionally, she lent her psychological expertise to lawyers or advertisers for their self-interested purposes. But these purposes weren't hers, so she never turned them into a career.

To embrace memory tampering, she needed a purpose of her own. Something she could believe in and care about. Something that could put her skills to good use.

The story of how Loftus found that purpose—the story of her shadow career—began 30 years ago with a metaphor. "Imagine a world in which people could go to a special kind of psychologist or psychiatrist—a memory doctor—and have their memories modified," she mused in her 1980 book, Memory.   This was no fantasy, she argued. The doctor was memory itself. "Every day, we do this to ourselves and others," she explained. "Our memories of past events change in helpful ways, leading us to be happier than we might otherwise be." Indeed, this was nature's design:

Why should we cling tightly to those memories that disturb us and spoil our lives? Life might become so much more pleasant if it is not marred by our memory of past ills, sufferings, and grievances. … We seem to have been purposely constructed with a mechanism for erasing the tape of our memory, or at least bending the memory tape, so that we can live and function without being haunted by the past. Accurate memory, in some instances, would simply get in the way.  

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The doctor, as Loftus initially conceived it, was just a metaphor. And that was how she presented it in her introduction. But by the end of the book, she was taking it literally. She proposed "to put the malleable memory to work in ways that can serve us well."  

She envisioned this as a personal choice. "It would be nice," she mused, if each person "could decide whether he or she wanted to have an accurate memory versus a 'rosy' memory."   But memory modification didn't work that way. If you knew a rosy memory was rosy, you wouldn't buy it. The memory had to be presented as accurate. The patient had to be deceived.

In 1979, as she was writing Memory, Loftus took her first steps in this direction. She and James Fries, a professor of medicine, published two articles calling for limits on informed consent to medical or experimental procedures. Through the power of suggestion, many patients developed side effects predicted by doctors. To reduce this problem, Loftus and Fries proposed (download) that anyone facing a procedure should be told its overall level of risk, but "detailed information should be reserved for those who request it. Specific slight risks, particularly those resulting from common procedures, should not be routinely disclosed to all subjects."

This wasn't really a withholding of information, they argued. The details would still be available on the back of a consent form. Anyway, it was impossible to tell patients the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And the purpose of informed consent, they reasoned, was to protect patients. Shouldn't patients be similarly protected from harmful hypothetical information?

The proposal seemed logical. But its logic didn't stop at relegating scenarios to the back of a form. If obscuring harmful information was good medicine, what about supplying helpful misinformation?

Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, the memory doctor in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. At the request of two distraught lovers, he erased their memories of their relationship. Click image to expand.
Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, the memory doctor in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. At the request of two distraught lovers, he erased their memories of their relationship

By 1982, Loftus was talking more seriously about therapeutic memory modification. "Since suggesting the idea of a memory clinic with memory doctors busily working on the minds of eager clients," she reported, "I have come across the writings of practicing therapists who suggest that the idea is not all that far-fetched." She wrote of therapists who were "creating entire personal histories in people. In this way, they enabled their clients to have experiences that would serve as the resources for the kinds of behaviors the clients wanted now to have." To encourage weight loss, for example, "the therapists created 'new childhoods' in which the clients grew up as thin people."

Memory doctors were no longer a fantasy. They were real. But Loftus didn't see herself as one of them. She was an experimenter, not a therapist. It wasn't until 1990, when she stumbled on the Eileen Franklin case, that she began to learn how to create whole childhood recollections. And by then, she was consumed by the dangers of memory tampering. The recovered-memory therapists were ruining people's lives.

To replicate and expose their fabrications, Loftus was busy planting bad memories. It was important but depressing work. One day, as she was explaining her research at a University of Washington colloquium, a colleague asked, "Have you ever thought about planting a positive memory? Maybe you could increase self-esteem."

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