How Elizabeth Loftus Changed the Meaning of Memory

Rachel Aviv at The New Yorker:

Elizabeth Loftus was in Argentina, giving talks about the malleability of memory, in October, 2018, when she learned that Harvey Weinstein, who had recently been indicted for rape and sexual assault, wanted to speak with her. She couldn’t figure out how to receive international calls in her hotel room, so she asked if they could talk in three days, once she was home, in California. In response, she got a series of frantic e-mails saying that the conversation couldn’t wait. But, when Weinstein finally got through, she said, “basically he just wanted to ask, ‘How can something that seems so consensual be turned into something so wrong?’ ”

Loftus, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, is the most influential female psychologist of the twentieth century, according to a list ­compiled by the Review of General Psychology. Her work helped usher in a paradigm shift, rendering obsolete the archival model of memory—the idea, dominant for much of the twentieth century, that our memories exist in some sort of mental library, as literal representations of past events. According to Loftus, who has published twenty-four books and more than six hundred papers, memories are reconstructed, not replayed. “Our representation of the past takes on a living, shifting reality,” she has written. “It is not fixed and immutable, not a place way back there that is preserved in stone, but a living thing that changes shape, expands, shrinks, and expands again, an amoeba-­like creature.”

Loftus is a pioneering psychologist who changed our understanding of memory. Loftus showed memory isn’t fixed, like a recording. It can be changed – her word is is that memory is “malleable” – by our own imaginations, and external circumstances.

Loftus’s research into memory put her in much demand by defense lawyers.

Defense lawyers began calling on her to testify about the ways that memories are distorted by leading questions, sloppy police lineups, and cross-racial identification of faces (The chance of misidentification is greatest when the witness is white and the defendant is Black.)

She testified on behalf of Harvey Weinstein in his recent rape prosecution, which made her unpopular to a lot of people.

She also argues against the validity of “repressed memories.” Memories of child sexual abuse do not remain dormant, virtually forgotten, and then spring to life when we are adults, she says. She’s been called on to defend men who were accused of abuse by their adult children.

Some people view her as a feminist icon, an early pioneer in a man’s field. Others think of her as an apologist for the patriarchy.

She wrote about the case of Nicole, a prominent advocate for domestic abuse survivors who said she was sexually abused by her mother. Loftus investigated the incident, and concluded that Nicole‘s memory was false. Nicole now has his doubts herself.

Loftus‘s research questions the fundamental nature of reality and our relationship to it. It may be that our memories of events fundamentally shaping our natures — the most important events of our lives — are inaccurate, or just didn’t happen. It’s like we’re living in a Philip K Dick story.

And Loftus herself may be carrying around a false memory of a fundamental event in her own childhood.

I’ve been thinking about this essay a lot in the days since I read it. It seems to me that our memories do not live in isolation in our own heads, but rather are shared by our family and friends. These memories are passed on largely by oral tradition, as they have been for thousands of years. Indeed, I think this kind of memory may be why language evolved; not just for personal memory, but also for skills and information about nature that would provide a huge survival edge. Language is a kind of cyberspace that is tens of thousands of years old.

Likewise, on the scale of societies, we have history. Written by the winners.

The past is unknowable, we can only approximate it. Time machines don’t exist; the past doesn’t either.