August 27, 2004

Memory and Manipulation

Richard at Mossback's Lunch links to an account of what Elizabeth Loftus is up to these days. Loftus used to work at University of Washington and got booted out because she started exposing the "repressed memory" scams being perpetrated. (a client undergoes hypnosys and leading questions are asked to the point where the client 'remembers' something the hypnotist was fishing for; usually child sexual abuse) Professor Loftus now works for UC Irvine and is under fire again, this time via the court system and a lawsuit for 'damages': bq. Memory and Manipulation The trials of Elizabeth Loftus, defender of the wrongly accused bq. On the wall of Professor Elizabeth Loftus’ third-floor UC Irvine office is a paper bull’s-eye target, pockmarked with bullet holes. If it looks somewhat incongruous in the mostly sedate academic surroundings — bookshelves lined with psychology texts, a large desk with a black Dell computer and stylish flat screen, a mock Vanity Fair cover with Loftus’ face staring out from atop Demi Moore’s body (a humorous gift from students), and photocopies of Andy Warhol’s Mick Jagger portraits — there’s good reason. Loftus — who, when she pulls her blue straw hat over her mussed shoulder-length brown hair and stands up in black-velvet pants and cotton blouse, looks startlingly like Diane Keaton in Annie Hall — took up target practice in 1994 after receiving death threats following the publication of her book The Myth of Repressed Memory. “We’re going to kill the bitch,” was one choice missive. The holes in the paper, Loftus says, laughing nervously as she recalls the events, were made on the firing range. bq. Target practice aside, Loftus’ work veers into an X-Files-type reality where nothing is as it seems, where even the inner sanctum of an individual’s most personal memories is subject to manipulations and falsification. We think of that sanctum as a citadel invulnerable to outside pressures. Loftus tells us that, to the contrary, it is a marshland crisscrossed with paths, instantly imprinted by the footprints of all those who traverse it. The article goes into detail here: bq. In an era where social panics — around sexual abuse, drug use and, more recently, terrorism in particular — have led all too many Americans to abandon the assumptions of innocence that theoretically underlie our criminal-justice system, Beth Loftus is a voice of caution. Like Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men, she is a holdout against our willingness to equate an accusation with guilt and our tendency to damn people on hearsay rather than genuine, verifiable evidence. Fighting the memory wars, for Loftus, has gone beyond the confines of the academy; it has become a battle for the credibility of America’s justice system. bq. In essence, Loftus says that our memories can lie, and that, when coaxed in one direction by people we trust (family members, therapists, police officers asking us to identify perps from a series of mug shots), all too often we can “remember” events that did not happen and see people at the scene of a crime who, in fact, were not actually there. While these false memories can be about almost anything, in the past couple of decades they have had an impact on the criminal-justice scene, most notably around the theme of “recovered” memories of instances of sexual abuse alleged to have occurred years or decades previously. Lacking any physical evidence, these cases hinge solely on the word of the alleged victim, their legal viability reliant entirely on the willingness of prosecutors, judge and jury to accept the allegations at face value. Yet, so traumatizing are these “memories,” these images of shattered and violated childhoods that swim up to the surface years later, often while the “victim” is undergoing counseling with an unlicensed therapist, that few are willing to challenge their validity, and to further devastate already desperately depressed individuals — and, as a result, too often men and women have been prosecuted solely on the basis of such “memories” or, if not prosecuted, have had their reputations and family relationships destroyed. A perfect example of what she is talking about is related here: bq. Not long ago, the actor Alan Alda visited Loftus’ lab while researching a television documentary on memory. Before he visited the lab, Loftus’ team had Alda fill in a questionnaire about his eating history since childhood. Over the course of the morning he was in the lab, Loftus and her students then implanted a false memory in Alda’s head, subtly convincing him that a computer analysis of his questionnaire had determined that he had gotten sick from eating bad hard-boiled eggs when he was a young boy. Later, when they took the actor out for a picnic — a photograph of the event is tacked up on Loftus’ office cork board — they monitored his food choices and, sure enough, he avoided the hard-boiled eggs they offered him. Fascinating stuff... Richard also links to another example of false memory Posted by DaveH at August 27, 2004 11:07 PM