Better living through memory modification.
In her EPS proposal, Loftus had sketched an informed-consent script that she thought could be defended as truthful. You could tell the patient that imagination exercises would improve her behavior, and, sure enough, her behavior would improve. But that self-fulfilling trick worked only because the future was unformed. Claims about the past were different. To revise the past, you had to lie.
Loftus speaking at the Beckman Center, March 2007
Loftus didn't flinch at this step. "A therapist isn't supposed to lie to clients," she conceded. "But there's nothing to stop a parent from trying something like this with an overweight child or teen." Parents already lied to kids about Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, she observed. To her, it was a no-brainer: "A white lie that might get them to eat broccoli and asparagus vs. a lifetime of obesity and diabetes: Which would you rather have for your kid?"
She was correct: The memories she was planting would do more good than harm. The same could be said for EPS and for her old proposal to limit side-effect warnings. But her ideas were becoming steadily bolder. She was thinking less like a student and more like an engineer. She was becoming more willing to deceive and to redefine consent. She was trying not just to shape the future but to reshape the past. And she was noticing none of this. Memory therapy was coming from a place she had forgotten, and it was going somewhere she couldn't foresee.
Where would it stop? Should a line be drawn against altering the past? If so, where? Those questions were open to debate. But something unsettling had already happened: Loftus had crossed her own line without recognizing it.
Many years earlier, she had worked with survey researchers on a common problem: false behavioral reports. (Read Memory, Sex, and Food: The Price of Error.) Deluded by rosy memories, people misrepresented their conduct. They underreported their sex partners, exaggerated their consistency in using condoms, and claimed better eating habits than they had really practiced. These delusions, in turn, skewed medical diagnoses and the surveys that informed nutritional science. To illustrate the danger, Loftus had sketched a scenario: Suppose researchers were interviewing women to identify dietary factors in breast cancer. If some of the women claimed to have eaten healthier food than they had really consumed, correlations between their outcomes and their actual diets would be obscured.
Now Loftus was planting precisely such memories. The problem wasn't just where to draw the line against memory modification. The problem was remembering where you had drawn it.
From food to alcohol: Loftus explores new frontiers in memory therapy
Undeterred, she plowed ahead. If memory therapy could change eating habits, why not drinking habits? With grant money from the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcohol Abuse, she and her collaborators moved on to alcohol, using the same method. In a report on their experiment, submitted in March 2010 to Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, they called their work "a first step in exploring the idea of using memory implantation techniques for the purposes of reducing or eliminating an unwanted behavior."
The list of unwanted behaviors was just getting started.
Next: The Future of the Past
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Video of Alan Alda by Chedd-Angier-Lewis. Video of Loftus at the Beckman Center Distinctive Voices @ the Beckman Center (The National Academies). Loftus speaking at Beyond Belief, a conference of The Science Network, November 2006. All rights reserved.