Saturday, September 29, 2018

Loftus On False Memories

   Dr. Loftus began conducting research in response to certain types of psychotherapies that became popularized in the 1970s, including hypnosis, exposure to false information, and dream interpretation. She had begun to notice that many patients who were going into these therapies with one set of issues (such as depression or anxiety) were coming out with another set of issues (“recovered” false memories of trauma). Dr. Loftus designed experiments to explore what was occurring in these mental processes.
   During her studies — approved by the relevant ethics authorities — her team successfully planted in the participants false memories of being attacked by an aggressive animal, witnessing a demonic possession, and being nearly drowned in childhood. Another study looked at members of the U.S. military who were violently interrogated, fed suggestive questions, and then asked to identify their interrogator. Many completely misremembered the physical appearance of their interrogator, which resulted in — sometimes drastic — misidentifications.
   “What these studies are showing is that when you feed people misinformation about some experience that they may have had, you can distort, contaminate, or change their memory. Out in the real world, misinformation is everywhere.” She said, citing media as a prominent example.
   In one TED talk, Dr. Loftus concluded:
   If I’ve learned anything from my decades working on these problems, it’s this: Just because somebody tells you something and they say it with lots of confidence, detail, and emotion does not mean that it really happened. We can’t reliably distinguish true memories from false memories; we need independent corroboration. Such a discovery has made me more tolerant of friends and family who misremember. Such a discovery might have saved Steve Titus. We should all keep in mind that memory, like liberty, is a fragile thing.
   She is not alone in the field, of course. In 1990, the McMartin preschool trial came to an end, seven years after allegations surfaced of outrageous, satanic sex abuse of toddlers. It was the most expensive criminal trial in American history; at its end, all charges were dropped. The mother who made the initial accusation was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic (she stated that she’d seen one of the alleged abusers fly through the air) and later found dead from complications of alcoholism. In the wake of this trial and other satanic-abuse hysteria sweeping the country at the time, “false memories” became a prominent phrase in neuropsychological research.
   Now, Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter explains that false memories form partly because our brains are constructive — they create narratives about our future, which might lead to related memory errors about our past. Elizabeth Phelps, a psychologist at New York University, reports in Identifying the Culprit: Assessing Eyewitness Identification that “unknown to the individual, memories are forgotten, reconstructed, updated, and distorted.”

I'd add: the theories/tales/"narratives" that get constructed are very much informed by prevailing ideas/theories. In Salem in 17th-century Salem, that meant: witches and magic and the devil. Now that means: sexual assault. It's a kind of paradigm story, a part of the left's worldview. It's exactly the type of account that the not-particularly-conscious mind would take off the cultural shelf and use as a blueprint on the basis of which to build a personal story of trauma and victimization.
   None of which is to say that I have any appreciable degree of certainty that Ford is saying something false. Though, honestly, this Loftus information about therapy and false memories seems really important to me. I think this really moves the needle in Kavanaugh's favor.


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