Rock Star Professor or Memory Magician? Perhaps You Recall

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Elizabeth Loftus spoke at a forensic mental health conference in Monterey last year. I walked in, saw two "early career" colleagues in the front row seats I coveted, and asked, "Are you here for Loftus?"

They both nodded eagerly.

I said, "So, you must know she's a rock star."

They both nodded eagerly again.

In fact, Professor Loftus is like a rock star among psychologists: great teacher, renowned mentor, brilliant scientist, and in the real world outside academia (where I work), she is a most distinguished professional. That is all well-known and is really no more surprising than finding out that Mick Jagger also plays the piano. It takes more than that to be admired among scholars, and magic helps.

Loftus (et al) produces research that is elegant and compelling. It evokes a sense of the uncanny, like magic instead of science. She could actually start that way, saying: "what you are about to witness are some of psychology's most challenging and foundational concepts in action."

The magic part is in the method. Before the method comes the question: is it a question that can be answered? For Loftus, the answer goes like this: we encountered a question that seemed impossible to answer, "so I designed a study ...".

If I am asked why the sky is blue, I might say "how do you know the sky is blue?"

You can get punched for responding to a question that way, but as a scholar, I am allowed to make the epistemological inquiry.

Epistemology asks: "how do you know what you know?"

Professor Loftus did get punched (not literally, it was worse) after forcing people to ask that question of themselves. She also provided some answers: some of what you know may not be true; just because you remember something doesn't mean it happened; memories are constructed and created from dynamic (not fixed) associations. And by the way, I can mess with your mind like you wouldn't believe.

Loftus focuses on memory, but the entire perceptual system is the same: what you see isn't necessarily real. The sensory information flow to your brain is constant, and all that information must be processed. The system decides what to store and what to ignore. If something turns up missing, it just fills in the blanks. When we are agitated or upset, the process gets messy. The constant threat is sensory overload -- TMI (too much information) and you're toast.

It is one thing to talk about how our minds can fool us. An adult remembers going to Disneyland as a child for a picture with Bugs Bunny? No problem.

It is different when you realize how our minds can fail us. What the false memory experiments show us is that reality testing is ordinarily and quite naturally subject to error. For the sake of her critics, it would have been better if Loftus had explained it the way John Lennon did in "Strawberry Fields Forever": "nothing is real ... nothing to get hung about."

Loftus correctly notes that your memory is your identity. If you lose your memory, you've lost your mind. It is a frightening experience.

It is equally frightening to find that you cannot trust your perception of the world around you. In evolutionary terms, you may be good at getting food and having sex, but if you don't know what's going on, you are the one the lion is going to eat.

Loftus tells us that if you know something and it is not true, there are real world implications. Innocent people go to prison, kids end up eating vegetables, scholars get sued for stating the obvious. Misinformation can lead to war and it is a method of oppression.

When you stand up to authority, the first thing they do is say you are crazy: "obviously, you misperceive." It is a Catch-22 of the most oppresive sort. If you challenge authority you must be insane, so why should they pay attention?

Do it once, they say you're nuts. Do it twice, they say you are dangerous. If you are dangerous, then you can be strapped down, locked up, or tossed out.

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