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No. 111: May-Jun 1997

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Malleable Memories

The ease with which psychologists can plant false memories in the minds of their subjects -- even savvy college students -- casts clouds over several anomalous phenomena, such as UFO abductions, ball lightning, and sea-monster sightings. Even scientists can be deluded into believing they have seen things in their laboratories. (Remember Blondlot's experiments with N-rays and the several physicists who confirmed his results?) Not that psychologists go around intentionally implanting memories of dubious phenomena. All it takes are suggestion, expectation, and/or paradigm-passion.

At a 1997 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, several psychologists told of their "malleable-memory" experiments. H.L. Roediger III, Washington University, asked students:

"...to look at a list of 15 words that included 'bed,' 'dream,' 'blanket,' 'doze,' and 'pillow.' Just over half said afterward that the word 'sleep' had been on the list, even though it wasn't."

E. Loftus, University of Washington, first asked a group of parents to describe some events that their children -- all now adults -- had experienced. Then, she went to the children and:

"...walked them through a series of real incidents [mentioned by their parents] and then threw in a fake one: As a young child, they had been lost in a shopping mall and were frightened and cried until an elderly person found them and reunited them with their parents."

It took just a bit of coaxing for a quarter of the subjects to concur that indeed they had been lost as suggested. More remarkably, some even provided additional details for the false event!

(Anonymous; "Psychologists Plant 'Illusions of Memory'," Baltimore Sun, February 16, 1997.)

From Science Frontiers #111, MAY-JUN 1997. 1997-2000 William R. Corliss