An American social ecologist last month published the results of tests that proved, she said, how easy it is to implant false memories in people. Dr. Elizabeth Loftus of the University of California at Irvine reported that in one experiment, subjects were shown advertisements featuring pictures of the cartoon character Bugs Bunny at Disneyland. Subsequently, more than a third of them said that they remembered having met Bugs on childhood visits to the theme park. Some even recalled touching his fur and what he had said (presumably “What’s up, Doc?”). There was just one small problem. No one has ever met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland, because he is a Warner Brothers character and isn’t even allowed on the grounds.
Psychologists, legal experts and, of course, the media, who know a good story when they see one, all were excited about this report. Of course, it bears directly on a controversy that has long dogged the relationship between science and the law — that is, the debate over the reliability or otherwise of human memory. Dr. Loftus’ experiment sheds fresh doubt on the trustworthiness of eyewitness testimony and also, more contentiously, on the phenomenon of so-called repressed memory, the process by which psychologists help victims “recover” memories of trauma or abuse. Over the years, she herself has testified on behalf of people accused of crimes ranging from murder to child abuse, saying their accusers’ memories — like anyone’s — were vulnerable to manipulation. Opponents say her work has helped many perpetrators, especially child molesters, escape conviction. Her latest research is certain to feed the controversy.
That’s the way it is being discussed in the academic journals. But let’s get serious about it for a few minutes. Do we really need a social ecologist (what is a social ecologist, anyway?) to tell us that memory is one of our most irrepressibly creative faculties? Isn’t false memory a common everyday experience? Sometimes it seems as if the world is nothing but a vast conspiracy to tell us we saw something when we didn’t, or vice versa.
One example cited by Dr. Loftus was the white van that hundreds of people reported seeing near the scenes of last year’s sniper shootings in Washington, D.C. As it turned out, the snipers drove a dark-blue sedan. “Where did that white van come from?” she asked. “It came from the fact that someone talked to the media and suddenly the whole country is looking for a white van that perhaps did not exist.”
With all due respect, however, there are more persuasive examples than that. (For one thing, how can Dr. Loftus prove that hundreds of people didn’t see white vans in the vicinity of the shootings? All that can be proved is that the snipers weren’t in one.)
Here is our private, completely unscientific list of some real instances of false memory implantation:
* Seeing “The Ring,” hating it, reading or being told later that it’s the best movie since “Rashomon,” and then “remembering” that, oh, yes, we really loved it.
* Having the opposite experience with “Titanic.”
* Thinking privately that former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori wasn’t such a bad guy and then “remembering” later that he was a gaffe-prone fool.
* Being completely miserable as a human sardine viewing Bon fireworks over the Sumida River in Asakusa and then “remembering” the experience the following winter as the high point of summer. This memory even includes a full-sky image of rainbow-colored pyrotechnics, when the truth (albeit painfully repressed and torturously recovered in therapy) was that a large building blocked out three-quarters of one’s view and the well-remembered image was actually supplied by NHK.
* Quite enjoying the ’90s and then learning after the new millennium dawned that the whole decade was so bleak they’ve officially lost it.
* Hearing that Osama bin Laden was behind the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but then “remembering,” courtesy of U.S. President George W. Bush, that it was really Iraqi President Saddam Hussein who did it. (Failing to remember this causes us to keep forgetting why there is about to be a war.)
* Meeting Bugs Bunny at Tokyo Disneyland.
* Viewing Mount Fuji from central Tokyo (that has to be a false memory).
* And dozens more, which we would list if it weren’t for the fact that we can’t recall them just now. Never mind the skeptics. It is clear that Dr. What’s-her-name is onto something. And don’t you forget it.
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