Can We Trust Our Own Memories?

In the article entitled “Memories of Things Unseen,” Elizabeth F. Lotus of the University of California Irvine addresses the subject of false memories, examining how such false memories can be created and implanted in subjects in the research context and how real-world events can alter the encoding and retrieval of memories. Loftus goes on to explore the implications of her research into false memories, noting that such memories can have significant and sometimes terrible consequences for those who are affected by them. In order to demonstrate how false memories can be created, Loftus uses several examples from various research studies that use a number of techniques to implant false memories in subjects. The article concludes with a brief discussion about the nature of memory, and how even genuine memories are never exact, but are, as one researcher describes them, “imaginative reconstruction(s)” of events (Loftus, 2004).

Loftus begins by offering an example of a prisoner jailed on rape charges who was exonerated after many years by DNC testing. His accuser had been unable to identify a suspect until she was hypnotized by police, implying that her memories may have been implanted or suggested during this process. Loftus goes on to describe a number of ways that researchers have implanted memories in test subjects; in one example, referred to as “the lost in the mall” procedure, subjects are fed false memories about a traumatic event in early childhood by family members. A significant number of subjects reported that they “remembered” the events even though they did not happen. Other studies have been designed to ensure that the false memories are particularly implausible to ensure that subjects are unlikely to be remembering events that may actually have happened to them.

What is most notable about Loftus’ article is how clearly it is demonstrated that memories can be easily altered or even implanted completely. Cognitive theories of memory show that there are several different types of memory, such as the memories we use when tying our shoes or riding a bike; our memories about specific information; and our memories of events. This article focuses primarily on this form of episodic memory and suggests that when recalling past events we use a combination of actual memories and our own imaginations to “reconstruct” our recollections of events. By manipulating the human imagination through suggestion, it is possible to implant false memories in subjects that, by some measurements –such as in confidence of the accuracy of the memory, and even the emotional arousal associated with it- can seem as real to a subject as events that genuinely occurred.


Loftus, E. F. (2004). Memories of Things Unseen. American Psychological Society, 13(4), 145-147.