The Memory Doctor
Part VI: The Road to Therapy
Elizabeth Loftus warmed to the idea of memory tampering for the best of reasons. She wanted to help people.
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.
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?
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."
Loftus hadn't thought of memory doctoring as a good idea in more than a decade. And now the idea struck her quite differently. It was no longer a mystery. It was her craft. She could do it.
Her first idea, cooked up over lunch with a friend, was to plant a memory of sitting on your grandmother's lap and being told that you were her favorite grandchild. Wouldn't that feel wonderful? But then she realized what would happen at the end of the experiment. As a research psychologist, she was ethically required to tell her subjects that the memory wasn't true. She couldn't bear to do that. So she dropped the idea.
Then another idea came along. Loftus had two junior colleagues studying imagination and memory. They were demonstrating that the act of imagining an experience increased people's confidence that the experience had really happened. Loftus tacked on a second experiment to see whether similar imagination exercises could increase healthy behaviors. The subjects were asked to imagine flossing and eating vegetables with dinner. It seemed to work: 24 percent of subjects later reported more flossing, and 40 percent reported more vegetable consumption.
In February 1997, Loftus unveiled her new line of thinking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She explained how imagination could distort memory, and she conceded that this was often harmful. But rather than renounce the whole idea, she proposed to "harness the power of imagination and put it to some good use" by inducing healthier behavior. Instead of tampering with memories, she was proposing to take one component of the memory-tampering recipe—imagination—and use it for a completely different purpose.
Soon she was being flown to Washington, D.C., for a workshop organized by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Its purpose was to figure out how behavioral science could inform behavior therapy. She presented her findings on imagination and memory, and the group discussed how this research could be clinically applied. Based on the presentation, Loftus and a colleague, Giuliana Mazzoni, wrote up a proposal and published it in the Autumn 1998 issue of Behavior Therapy.
Loftus had two models to work from. One was the accidental brainwashing recipe of the recovered-memory therapists. The other was her copy of that recipe, refined in the laboratory. All she had to do was tweak it.
The tweaked recipe, outlined in Behavior Therapy, was a procedure called Expert Personalized Suggestion. The patient's behavior would be changed through the power of suggestion, in the form of guided imagination exercises. She would envision herself flossing, for example, and would be promised better flossing habits as a result. This promise would be made credible by a tailored analysis of her personality. And she would accept the analysis and the suggestion because they came from an expert.
Loftus speaking at Beyond Belief, a conference of the Science Network, November 2006
The authors described this as "a novel procedure that capitalizes on what past research has intimated about the power of an authority figure, and the power of personalized suggestion, to influence people's thinking about their past." The past research, much of it conducted by Loftus, had focused on the danger of these powers. But the new procedure exploited them. It incorporated some of the tricks she had learned from the recovered-memory therapists, starting with pseudo-customized diagnosis. The diagnosis was actually scripted, and the expertise, as presented to the patient, was fraudulent. In fact, Loftus and Mazzoni called the whole thing a "therapy simulation." But instead of hurting people, it would help them. It would get them to floss, take calcium supplements, and avoid cigarettes.
There was one catch: The procedure wouldn't work if patients knew it was fake. They had to believe that the therapy, expertise, and personalization were real. "We probably would not wish to include the deceptive aspects of the methodology because it is not ethically acceptable to deceive a client," the authors conceded. But maybe this problem could be fudged: "Suppose after a short interview with [the patient], the clinician tells her that he proposes trying an imagination exercise that he is quite confident, given her interview, will lead her to increase her consumption of calcium. In a real sense this is a true statement," since imagination exercises, on average, did change behavior. If the simulation worked, it wasn't fake—was it?
With each innovation and rationalization, Loftus was building a technical and moral case for therapeutic trickery. But one ingredient was still missing from her recipe: memory.
Part VII: Training Humans
In 1998, when Elizabeth Loftus published her first behavior-therapy proposal, she stopped short of editing memories. The proposal, Expert Personalized Suggestion, was designed to exploit the self-fulfilling power of imagination, not to alter recollections. Loftus and her coauthor described memory modification as an unfortunate risk of the procedure. It might happen, they wrote, but only as a tolerable "cost" and "side effect."
To become a memory doctor, Loftus needed one more tweak. She needed to set aside her compunctions about memory tampering and redirect her mind-control skills from the future to the past.
It happened by accident. A few years after she published her EPS proposal, she began a new line of research, investigating whether false memories could affect behavior. The behavior had to be simple, measurable, influenced by memory, and testable in the lab. One obvious candidate was eating. Food aversions were common and powerful. You could plant a memory of a bad experience with a certain food. Then you could test whether this memory affected the subject's eating behavior.
Loftus' collaborators tried the experiment first with pickles and hard-boiled eggs. They asked subjects to fill out questionnaires about their food preferences. A week later, they handed out computer-generated reports telling each subject that he had, among other things, gotten sick as a child from eating one of the specified foods. The subject was told that the computer had drawn this conclusion from an analysis of his answers to the questionnaire. The procedure was like EPS, except that the expert was now a computer, and the suggestion was a false memory. After reading the reports, more than a quarter of the subjects said they believed or remembered the incident. When they were asked later about foods they might eat at a barbecue, those who were successfully duped indicated that they were more likely to avoid pickles or eggs.
Loftus performing her food experiment on Alan Alda
When Loftus saw the results, an idea came to her. What if you could produce similar aversions to fattening foods? Could false memories help people eat a healthier diet? She tried the experiment again, first with potato chips, then with chocolate chip cookies and strawberry ice cream. The potato-chip version failed, apparently because potato chips were too familiar as a tasty snack. But the ice-cream version worked. More than 40 percent of subjects were persuaded that they had gotten sick eating strawberry ice cream, and these subjects were significantly more likely to say they would avoid it.
In February 2005, Loftus and her coauthors published the egg study, concluding that "humans can be trained to avoid food." Four months later, they published the ice-cream study under the title, "False Beliefs About Fattening Foods Can Have Healthy Consequences." The diet-improvement rationale, originally an afterthought, was now central. The bottom line, they wrote, was that "we can, through suggestion, manipulate nutritional selection and possibly even improve health."
In the food experiments, all the threads of Loftus' career came together. Instead of training a rat, she was training people. Instead of using a reward, she was using the techniques she had learned from the recovered-memory therapists. And instead of planting bad memories, she was planting healthy ones. She was a real-life memory doctor.
But she, too, was responding to behavioral reinforcement. The fattening-food experiment was the most widely celebrated study she had ever done. It made headlines all over the world and earned her a place on the New York Times Magazine's list of the year's most innovative ideas. She was being rewarded for doing something socially useful. She reveled in the attention and acclaim. She quoted her press clippings in speeches.
In reality, the work she had done on memories of sexual abusewas more important. But that work had hurt and angered people. It had brought condemnation and contempt on her. In diet therapy, she found no such punishment. Again, she was meeting people who desperately needed her. But this time, they were fighting obesity, not deluded daughters. "I wish I could be of more immediate help to these people, but I'm forced to tell them that the line of research is at its very earliest stages," she wrote in 2007. "Still, it is refreshing to be working on a topic that could indeed be of genuine help to people and one that is not as anger inspiring and dangerous as the topic of sex abuse."
Loftus speaking at Beyond Belief, a conference of The Science Network, November 2006
All those years, Loftus had been vilified for attacking therapy. Now she was inventing a therapy of her own. But hers was different. It was good for people, and she could make it better. She began to think of ways to magnify its power: ratcheting up the false feedback, perhaps, or showing photos or videos of people being sickened by the designated foods. Soon she was convincing students that they had loved asparagus as children. "Healthier Eating Could Be Just a False Memory Away," said the published journal article.
Loftus talked about the food experiments the same way she had talked about EPS. The concept, she explained, was to "tap into people's imagination and mental thoughts to influence their food choices." But two crucial elements had changed. First, she was now trying to influence behavior through memory, not just through imagination. In EPS, memory modification had been a kind of collateral damage. In the food experiments, memory modification was the whole idea.
Second, she was proposing permanent deception. Psychologists who misled people in experiments were ethically obliged to tell them the truth when the experiments were over. That was why Loftus had abandoned her original idea to plant a memory of being told by your grandmother that you were her favorite grandchild. Now Loftus was severing that obligation. Therapeutic memory modification, as she envisioned it, would be left uncorrected.
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. 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.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.