What is the future of our past?

As you may have noticed, I worry a lot about memory and its relationship to identity and truth. I carried on about it in my last post and in other previous posts. I’m even more worried about it after reading a series by William Saletan,“The Memory Doctor” in the on-line magazine, Slate.

Saletan’s essay begins with an experiment by the magazine based on George Orwell’s description of a Ministry of Truth in his book, 1984, where the past as it happened was systematically changed in all its particulars to make another, more politically acceptable past. Slate tried an experiment based on Orwell, changing recent political memories in a sampling of its readers with the introduction of doctored photos, so that a significant number of participants in the experiment “remembered” events that never happened (e.g. a handshake between Obama and Ahmadinejad). The magazine caused “false memories.”

The bulk of the essay is about Elizabeth Loftus, an experimental psychologist, who, writes Saletan, “has been tampering with memories in her laboratory for nearly 40 years.” When she began her work in the 1960s most people understood memory as a recording of things past. Our remembrances were stored in our brains and when we were asked the right questions or prompted by the right images, we retrieved them. Loftus showed that questions and images could also work to change memories. They could even create memories that were entirely unreal.

In a long, fascinating description of the scientist and her work, the author shows how Loftus became an expert on the alteration of memory (she was the trial expert who finally proved that many of the “repressed memories” of sexual abuse of the 1990s recalled by apparent victims were false memories, stimulated by leading questions and images). In more recent years, she’s explored the creation of false memories by advertising. She’s also done experiments on using false memories to change eating and drinking habits.

In 1989 Elizabeth Loftus could write of:

the horrifying idea that our memories can be changed, inextricably altered, and that what we think we know, what we believe with all our hearts, is not necessarily the truth. She quoted a fellow psychologist not to accept a false reality as truth, for that is the very essence of madness.

Lethe was the ancient name for forgetting. It was usually associated with water and with the end of life.

Today, however, Elizabeth Loftus  is  increasingly an advocate of recreating memories in order to help people: aiding the obese to lose weight, the alcoholic to stop drinking, the traumatized to recover from their traumas, the insecure to find new confidence.

This has taken some mental and moral gymnastics since doctors take an oath to be honest with their patients. A subject can’t remember something that never happened willfully; he has to be tricked or the whole gambit won’t work. And once memories are changed, there’s no going back. Said Loftus, the brain works like a computer. “You call up a file, edit it and then put the revised file back. The original is lost.”

I’m intrigued by the reasoning of the scientist at another point, perhaps because it’s something I’ve been grappling with. Our memories have already been doctored. They’re colored with our desires and hopes. Remembering is something we do therapeutically. It’s natural for us to change what really happened in ways to make ourselves happier. Loftus suggests that she  is merely enhancing that process by re-engineering them.

I’m not doing justice to the power of Saletan’s article: it would take a novel and if it weren’t a true story I’d love to write it – the novel, I mean.

It does raise questions for the artist. Am I engaged in creating false memories when I write, especially when the material is based closely on what (I think) really happened? And how’s this for an oldie: what is truth anyway?

In the meantime, in a world where lying has become a norm for many in our culture, where truth has gone begging, it’s all pretty frightening. As Saletan puts it, “What is the future of our past?” He closes with Loftus’ own words:

When we have mastered the false memory recipes, we will need to worry about who controls them. What brakes should be imposed on police, lawyers, advertisers? More than ever, we’ll need to constantly keep in mind that memory, like liberty, is a fragile thing.

Or, to repeat my own words from my last post:

Watching my mother die with Alzheimers, I learned a lot about memory. Most of all, I learned that it’s not just memories that we lose when we  lose our memory, it’s the framework and context for everything we are and do, for the meaning of our lives.

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