What is your saddest childhood memory

"Remembering is a creative process"

Ms. Loftus, if I remember this interview in a few weeks, can I rely on my memory?
Elizabeth Loftus: As far as the general direction is concerned, probably yes. But I would be careful with the details. Our memory doesn't work like a tape recorder that records something and then you can just play it back. Remembering is a creative process: when we remember, we shape fragments that we have experienced at different times and in different places into a memory or something that feels like a memory.

So it doesn't have to be the truth?
Exactly. And every time we remember something, when we pull out a memory content, we change it again. Because of the mood we're in right now, because of new information that we didn't have at the time. It's like a file that is constantly being changed and only the most recent version is accessible. Therefore we can have wrong memories, or there can be details in them that are not correct.

For example?
We also include conclusions in memories that we have drawn. Let's say I tell you, "John hammered the nail in the wall." Then later I come back and ask you, "Did I say he hammered the nail in the wall?" Most people say yes. John could have used a shoe or something, but we assume he used a hammer - and we remember that too.

In court, such false memories can determine whether a defendant is guilty or innocent.
We have long known that there are cases where victims or witnesses mistakenly identify a person as a perpetrator and that person is then wrongly convicted. But only for a few years have we really had good data on how often this happens. The Innocence project has specialized in reopening old cases in which there are traces of DNA that could not be examined at the time. Brandon Garrett of the Innocence Project analyzed the first 250 cases of people who were able to prove their innocence in this way. 76 percent of these convictions are due to false testimony.

There are also cases where it's not about details, but entire episodes that people could remember but which never happened.
Yes, believing that you have been raped by a satanic cult is different from believing that someone has straight hair when they have curls. There have been thousands of such cases: people went to therapy and came out believing they were the victim of abuse. They went to the police and charged neighbors or family members who were then frequently convicted. Those were tragic cases.

This “false memory syndrome” is still controversial. Where is the memory of such a great, terrible event supposed to come from that never happened?
Most of the time it works like this: A woman has a problem, such as an eating disorder or depression. She goes to the therapist and he says, “You know, anyone who has come to me with these symptoms has been abused as a child. Did something like that happen to you too? "The woman says no and the therapist continues:" But couldn't it be that that happened and you suppressed it? Try to remember! What could have happened? ”And slowly an image emerges, a possibility that at some point becomes a certainty.

But isn't it possible that these people actually suppressed traumatic experiences?
I believe that you can't think of something for a long time, even very unpleasant things, and then something reminds you of it. You just have to go to a class reunion to experience this for yourself. But that anyone can suppress memories of eleven years of rape or a horrific murder, there is no credible scientific basis for such claims.

You have a very sad childhood memory yourself.
When I was 14 years old, my mother drowned in her brother's swimming pool. That was on his property in Pennsylvania. I was there then and visited my uncle. I remember the day. I remember the firefighters who came. It was a terrible tragedy.

Years later, on my uncle's 90th birthday, a relative reminded me of the day and told me that I had found my mother then. I disagreed, said, “No, it wasn't me. Your sister found her. ”But he was sure. And I started to wonder if he might be right. The fire brigade gave me oxygen, I remembered that. Maybe I was so upset because I found my mother. For a few days this memory grew in my head and I almost believed it when the relative called me and said: "Sorry, I made a mistake the other day, it was actually your aunt who found your mother."

Why should evolution endow us with such unreliable memories?
One answer is sure, that it allows us to correct mistakes. Also, many of the mistakes our memory makes seem to improve our self-image: We believe that we got better grades in school than we actually had, that our children could walk and talk earlier than they actually could, that we cast our votes in elections in which we did not participate. All of this increases our self-esteem.

But why would anyone want to believe that they have been sexually abused, for example?
Because he has such an explanation for his problems, for his behavior. The person does not have to feel guilty, or think: something is wrong with me. I guess I'm a bad person or a little bit crazy.

Is there any way to distinguish false and real memories?
This is very hard. Just because someone tells something in great detail and vividly, very confidently, very emotionally, doesn't mean that it happened that way. False memories can have exactly these properties.

And in the brain scanner, when you watch the brain remembering, so to speak?
Researchers have been trying to identify the difference between real and false memories for more than ten years. So far, however, we have had little success. Typically, the test subjects see an accident or a crime in the experiment. Afterwards, they receive false information about it, which they incorporate into their memory, just as it really does when they speak to other witnesses. So the right information was taken in visually, the wrong information through the sense of hearing.

With the right memories, one could expect a slightly stronger activation of the brain area that processes visual information. We actually see small differences, but we are very, very far from testing a single memory of a person and saying whether it is true or not.