Even odder, the volunteer would usually be happy to elaborate on this implanted memory. His panic, his confusion, his relief; it was all there, hidden away in his memory. Except that it wasn’t—it was all in his imagination. With just a small bit of coaxing, Loftus could insert this memory even into the most skeptical minds.
“If they say they don’t remember, I’ll just ask them to try to imagine it,” says Loftus. “That starts them down the road. They’ll begin to ‘uncover’ more details, and pretty soon they’ll start believing in the story themselves.”
The real world implications for this study, which Loftus successfully repeated numerous times, are immediately obvious.
Eyewitness testimony to any crime starts to seem rather dubious – after all, who’s to say a particularly persuasive police officer or trial lawyer hasn’t manipulated or even implanted a key memory? Loftus' studies make the idea of repressed "uncovered memories" – usually of childhood abuse – that suddenly surge to light in adulthood especially suspect.
After spending much of her career studying dark memories, Loftus began to wonder whether there might be a more positive and encouraging application of her work.
Through her experiments, she had already proved that false memories occur organically. What if she could plant memories herself, she wondered—and use them to help people?
To test this prospect, Loftus informed volunteers that they had experienced an aversive reaction to ice cream in the past by planting a memory of ice cream-related nausea. It worked: Forty percent of volunteers claimed to remember the reaction—and most of them noted that they’d avoid ice cream in the future. By planting false beliefs, Loftus had created healthy behavior, a revelatory finding with profound implications for behavioral psychology.
Of course, Loftus’ work isn’t on the level of the movie Inception. But it isn’t that far away, either.
Her research proves that memories are little more than stories we tell ourselves. Like many stories, some might be based on truth. But others might be illusions, unmoored from reality, camouflaged in details that even the keenest mind can’t separate from fiction.