CRF Blog

Remembering Childhood Trauma That Never Happened

by Bill Hayes

In Remembering Childhood Trauma That Never Happened, the New York Times’ Science of Us examines false memories.

Daniel Schacter was one of the first scientists to look seriously at the nature of false memories, but the person who brought them into the global spotlight was University of California, Irvine, psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. Her research over the past three and a half decades has upended everything we thought we knew about this phenomenon.

After graduating from Stanford in 1974, Loftus began working for the U.S. Department of Transportation, examining eyewitness accounts of accidents. She noticed that when estimating the speed of cars involved in crashes, witnesses answered differently depending on how the question was phrased. The highest estimates went to those trying to guess the speeds of two cars that “smashed” into each other. Second highest were for cars that “hit” each other, and the lowest were for the ones that “made contact” with each other. Loftus began to wonder how deep this “memory contamination,” as she calls it, goes.

In the mid-1970s, this led to one of her most famous sets of experiments. People viewed slides of a red Datsun passing a stop sign and then smacking a pedestrian. The experimenters asked the subjects a number of questions, some of which are a little misleading, like, “Did another car pass the red Datsun while it was stopped at the yield sign?” The subject thinks for a moment and then says to herself, No, I definitely didn’t see any other cars next to that yield sign. And voilà, the sign has changed in their minds.

You see, as the subjects are trying to make sense of what is happening in front of them, they are falling back on the frameworks in their brains, built over the course of their whole lives. And it turns out that sometimes the observed reality is more fluid than the preconceived story. Was that a yield sign? Yeah, yeah — I think it was. Many people think of memory as some kind of video, one that you can simply rewind to see what happened. It’s a nice idea, but such hidden memories, if they exist, are extremely rare. More often, when you try to go back in time, your mind simply fills in the blanks with something that seems right, given the story it’s trying to construct. We all have memories like this — things we’re sure about and that we can see with our eyes closed — that just aren’t true.

After her traffic accident research, Loftus began focusing all her attention on this kind of corrupted memory. Over the years, she has managed to implant dozens of scenarios from people’s childhoods that never actually happened. In one, she convinced a healthy segment of her subjects that they had once gotten lost in a mall as a child and their parents had been panicked until a kindly man in a jean jacket found them and returned them. To get the memory to stick, she used all her suggestive prowess (as with the yield sign), and added a new element by bringing in trusted family members to testify to the accuracy of the lost-kid narrative. Within weeks, about a quarter of her subjects remembered the event as real. [more]