We all know that memories can be flawed, but just how malleable they are has come to the forefront of psychological investigation in recent years. The investigation of false memory was pioneered by Elizabeth Loftus. In her 1994 study, a quarter of participants were convinced that they had been lost in a shopping mall as a child, despite none of them actually having this experience.
Just how common false memories appear to be has far-reaching implications. Recently, a study into eyewitness identification procedures in the US was granted $1.4 million. This interest followed the success of the New York based ‘Innocence Project’, which overturns eyewitness convictions, based on subsequent DNA evidence.
More recently, eerily science-fiction like research into false memories has occurred. In 2012, two MIT scientists – Xu Liu and Steve Ramirez – were able to ‘implant’ a memory into the brain of a mouse. The mice used in the study were genetically altered, so that certain brain cells were sensitive to light and so could be triggered by lasers. First, the pair allowed the mouse to explore box A, before transferring it to box B. Whilst in the second box, it was given a small electric shock, whilst at the same time having the part of its brain containing the memory of box A stimulated by a laser. When the mouse was returned to box A, it froze in fear – reacting to the false memory it had of being shocked there.
Liu and Ramierz’s research has the potential to inform the treatment of neurological disorders from dementia to depression, through the ‘reactivation’ of memories, as well as allowing the perennially mysterious process of memory-formation to be better understood. However, the success of this experiment has led to some existential angst. It is through memories that we form our identities, so we might have trouble accepting just how malleable they are. The ability to ‘implant’ memories in the brain could also have sinister applications such as wrongfully placing blame, or generally traumatising a person. This research is fascinating, and potentially beneficial, but raises some profound questions about the nature of our memories.