How reliable is your memory?

Simple answer: not very … it’s subject to gaps, distortions and falsehoods.

The Kavanaugh-Ford imbroglio really piqued my interest in brainworks, memory and psychotherapy.

Studying up on the topics, I stumbled upon a 2013 TED Talk by Dr. Elizabeth Loftus – a research psychologist specializing in memory.  Her specific areas of interest are the effects of trauma and therapeutic memory reconstruction.

click to view

Trust me, the entire 15 minute talk which has been viewed by almost 4 million people and is loaded with evidence and examples – is engaging and educational.  Well worth watching!

For now, here are some key snippets from the talk…



“How reliable is your memory?”
TED Talks 2013
Dr. Elizabeth Loftus

I’m a psychological scientist. I study memory. I’ve studied memory for decades. I don’t study when people forget. I study the opposite: when they remember, when they remember things that didn’t happen or remember things that were different from the way they really were. I study false memories.


In one project in the United States, information has been gathered on 300 innocent people, 300 defendants who were convicted of crimes they didn’t do. DNA testing proved that they are actually innocent. And when those cases have been analyzed, three quarters of them are due to faulty memory, faulty eyewitness memory.


Many people believe that memory works like a recording device. You just record the information, then you call it up and play it back when you want to answer questions or identify images. But decades of work in psychology has shown that this just isn’t true. Our memories are constructive. They’re reconstructive. Memory works a little bit more like a Wikipedia page: You can go in there and change it, but so can other people.


Misinformation about some experience that a person may have had, can distort or contaminate or change their memory. People get misinformation if they’re questioned in a leading way, if they talk to other witnesses who might consciously or inadvertently feed them some erroneous information, or if they see media coverage about some related event. All of these provide the opportunity for memory contamination.


In the 1990s, we began to see an extreme kind of memory problem. Some patients were going into therapy with one problem — maybe they had depression, an eating disorder — and they were coming out of therapy with a different problem: Extreme memories of horrific brutalizations and abuse. But there were no physical scars or any kind of physical evidence that supported their stories.


And when I began looking into these cases, I was wondering, where do these bizarre memories come from? And what I found is that most of these situations involved some particular forms of psychotherapy — like the imagination exercises or dream interpretation, or in some cases hypnosis, or in some cases exposure to false information.  Were these leading these patients to develop these very bizarre, unlikely memories? Was memory being abused to create false memories?


Probably the worst case I saw was a woman who was innocent of abuse that was being claimed by her grown daughter. She accused her mother of sexual abuse based on a repressed memory. And this accusing daughter had actually allowed her story to be filmed and presented in public places. I was suspicious of this story, and so I started to investigate, and eventually found information that convinced me that this mother was innocent.


Therapists can’t ethically plant false memories in the mind of their patients even if it would help the patient, but …


Let’s interrupt Dr. Loftus’ talk for a moment.

The last point, that “therapists can’t ethically plant false memories”, reminded me of a recent WSJ article that was directly on that point: Therapeutic Narratives Needn’t Be Factual

The gist of the article:

A psychologist’s job is to empathize with patients, not to test a patient’s story against objective reality.

In many cases therapy leads patients to change the stories they tell themselves to heal their emotional wounds.

A therapeutic narrative may be a mix of accurate and inaccurate memories, along with inferences to fill in the gaps.

Like mythology or other literature, it can provide truthful insights into one’s inner life even if it doesn’t pass the test of objective accuracy.


With that context in mind, back to Dr. Loftus’ grand conclusion:

I know from my work how much fiction is already in our memories. If I’ve learned anything from these decades of working on these problems, it’s this: just because somebody tells you something and they say it with confidence, just because they say it with lots of detail, just because they express emotion when they say it, it doesn’t mean that it really happened.

We can’t reliably distinguish true memories from false memories. We need independent corroboration.

Otherwise, whole futures can be snatched away by a false memories.

Sound familiar?

As Ronnie Reagan would say “trust but verify”.


Put the TED Talk and the WSJ article together, and they provide a useful perspective on  what we saw in the hearings.

I wonder why the Judicial Committee didn’t call Dr. Loftus to testify.

Maybe, they just didn’t want to know.

You think?


Again, the entire Ted Talk “How reliable is your memory?” is very eye-opening … and, since it’s from 2013, it’s not contaminated by the politics of the Kavanaugh-Ford situation.  Watch it!.


Follow on Twitter @KenHoma

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One Response to “How reliable is your memory?”

  1. LosLobos Says:

    Cuts both ways. Ergo, this argument has no legs

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