Memory Implantation

Elizabeth Loftus by Rob Donnelly

Memory implantation is a technique used in cognitive psychology to investigate human memory. Researchers make people believe that they remember an event that actually never happened, such as being lost in a mall as a child, taking a hot air balloon ride, and putting slime in a teacher’s desk in primary school. Memory implantation techniques were developed in the 1990s as a way of providing evidence of how easy it is to distort people’s recollection of past events. Most of the studies were published in the context of the debate about repressed memories and the possible danger of digging for lost memories in therapy.

The first formal studies using memory implantation were published in the early 1990s, the most famous being ‘The Formation of False Memories’ (commonly referred to as the ‘Lost in the Mall’ study) by cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. The basic technique used in this study involved asking family members of a participant to provide narratives of events that happened when they were young and then add another event that definitely had not happened. The participants saw these four narratives and were told to try to remember as much as possible about each event. Across a number of studies using memory implantation, about 37% of people have come to remember parts of or entire events that never actually happened.

Other studies have expanded on this paradigm by introducing photos instead of narratives. In one study 50% of people came to remember details of a hot air balloon ride that never happened, after seeing a manipulated photo depicting the event. Later it was argued that photos by themselves do not produce more false memories than narratives, but that both methods have the power to successfully implant false memories. Even real photos have also been found to increase the creation of false memories. People shown a childhood photo from the same time period as false event developed false memories, even when the photos did not depict the actual event. A study with children in 1999 found that it was easier to implant a memory of a plausible event (being lost in a mall) than an implausible one (receiving a rectal enema). Later follow up studies, however, found that the perceived plausibility of a false event can be changed, making the false event easier to implant. Psychologist Giuliana Mazzoni suggests a three processes model for the development of false memories through suggestions. The first process is to make people perceive the event as plausible, the second is to make people believe it is likely to have happened to them, and the third step is to help people interpret thoughts and fantasies about the event as memories. Other factors influencing the likelihood of producing false memories include imagining the events and making a source-monitoring error, specifically reality monitoring (discriminating between internally and externally retrieved sources).

A real life example of memory implantation occurred during the criminal case against Paul Ingram. Ingram was accused by his daughters of recurring sexual abuse in their childhood. Ingram denied all allegations at first but after being interviewed by police and therapists he came to remember multiple instances of abuse. Psychologist Richard Ofshe considered this confession a result of suggestive questioning and decided to test his theory. He told Ingram about a made-up scenario and said it was another accusation made by his children. Ofshe asked Ingram to try and remember as much as possible about this new event. Ingram could not recall anything straight away but after thinking about it for some time came up with a written confession where he described in detail what had happened. His children confirmed to Ofshe that the event had never actually happened, Ingram had created an entirely false memory of an event after suggestions from Ofshe. Richard Ofshe considered this successful memory implantation evidence of Paul Ingram’s suggestibility and in his opinion it questions the accuracy of Ingram’s other confessions.

The methods used in memory implantation studies are meant to mimic those used by some therapists to recover repressed memories of childhood events. The high rate of people ‘remembering’ false events shows that memories cannot always be taken at face value. Being told to go home and look at old photos to jog your memory can help you remember real events, but paired with suggestions from a therapist it might also lead to false memories. Memory implantation studies are also similar to recovered memory therapy in the way that they involve an authoritative figure claiming to know that the event actually happened and applying pressure on the participant/patient to remember. Memory implantation techniques in general also illustrate how people can relatively easily come to remember things that actually never happened. This poses a big problem for criminal confessions resulting from suggestive questioning by police and others and also for the accuracy associated with eyewitness memory. It has been argued that memory implantation studies are not applicable to real life memories of trauma such as childhood sexual abuse. As it is not ethical to try to implant false memories of sexual abuse researchers have tried to get around this by choosing other events that are seen as negative but not traumatic. Being lost in a shopping mall for example would be a negative experience for most children. One study used memory implantation techniques with emotional events such as a specific birthday party (positive) and being hospitalized overnight (negative). They found that using emotional events did not change the rate of false memory creation significantly compared with other studies. Child studies of implanted memories are controversial given the unknown lifelong implications.

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