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Memory engineering pioneer Elizabeth Loftus charts course for Inception-style mind control

A spinning top or pair of dice are all that helps characters in the 2010 film Inception remember whether they're in reality or an induced dream. The movie's title, "inception," is the primary goal: planting a false thought in a person's mind.

After 44 years of ground-breaking research on how human memory works, inception is precisely the area that memory expert Dr. Elizabeth Loftus is pioneering today.

The renowned – and extremely controversial – University of California Irvine psychologist will speak Thursday at Simon Fraser University on “Illusions of Memory.”

“Memory engineering could be done and could be helpful for people,” she told The Vancouver Observer. “It'll probably be a while before you can go as far as things went in Inception, but you can make people believe that they did things or saw things or experienced things that they didn't do or see.

“You can do things to take memories away from people. So we're just on the forefront of trying to understand those processes, where we can apply them – maybe – for the good of people.”

Death threats and controversy to protect the innocent

Beginning her psychology research in 1968, Loftus is best known for discrediting the notion of false or repressed memories – and has testified for the defence in numerous criminal trials where witness recollections are all the court has to go on. Those trials include Ted Bundy, theHillside Strangler, Bosnian war crimes, and the Oklahoma bomber.

Her work has put her life – and her job – in danger. She's angered therapists who use hypnosis and visualization to help traumatized clients access alleged child abuse; she's also outraged feminists because her work has been used to dismiss survivors' stories. But ultimately, her mission is to help protect the innocent from false conviction, she said. One of those was exonerated Canadian prisoner Thomas Sophonow.

“I had my share of death threats, needing to have guards at lectures I gave, people trying to get me fired or in trouble with my university,” she said. “All kinds of unpleasant things.

“Mostly that seems to be in the past – the world has woken up to the problem. . . Our memories are malleable. We don't just record an event like we would with a DVD, but the process is much more complex. What gets stored in the mind is subject to change and updating.”

Loftus is widely recognized in psychology and legal circles. But her experiments on humans have become the stuff of pop lore and urban legend.

False memories

Most famous of her studies was her “lost in the mall” experiment. True stories from participants' childhoods were collected through interviews with their families. Among those real experiences, the researchers added another: that, as a child, the subject became lost in a shopping mall, became distressed, and was found by an elderly person before being returned to their family.

“The lost in the mall thing just kind of came about,” Loftus said, laughing. “I was trying to think of something that would have been at least mildly traumatic, if it had happened to somebody as a child, but not so traumatic that it was harm the subjects in whom we were successful.”

The results: roughly a quarter of participants later believed they really had been lost in a mall as a child.

The experiment came under fire from critics who said lying to subjects is unethical, particularly around invented memories. But the 1978 study has been replicated over and over, often with comical scenarios.

Later studies proved that a significant number of people could be tricked into remembering that they smashed a window with their hand, choked on an object, were attacked by a wild animal, or even witnessed someone possessed by a demon.

Not everyone was tricked. But in most experiments, 30 to 40 per cent of people believed they had experienced the lies. It was enough to prove Loftus' theory that human memory is easily moulded, and what seems historic fact can in fact be fiction.

But can memories be erased? Such a notion brings to mind the film Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, in which a couple hires someone to erase their memory of one another, only to find that they were destroying something essential of their lives.

“One way you take away a memory is by planting something else,” Loftus said. “Just to erase them is a little bit harder.

“There are some studies that have been done with certain drugs that you can give people, for example after a traumatic experience, that seem to dampen the memory of that traumatic experience.”

Another area Loftus sees hope in is in fighting obesity by turning people off unhealthy foods.

“We were planting memories that you either got sick eating a particular food, or that you had a warm fuzzy memory involving a healthy food,” she said. “We could affect what people want to eat.

“If this could really be developed into a technique you could take on the road – which we haven't done yet, we've just done some preliminary experiments – we might be able to make a dent in the obesity problem in our society.”

Of course, many people are skeptical about claims of “inception,” or downright hostile to the notion that deception can serve a higher goal. Ignorance may be bliss – but does simply deleting unpleasant memories, for example, prevent us from actually dealing with our experiences? And isn't that mind control?

“It is a kind of mind control,” Loftus admits. “You choose – would you rather have obesity or diabetes and amputations, or would you rather have a bit of sprinkling of false details into your memory that might prevent those things. It's a trade-off.”

Dr. Loftus will speak about “Illusions of Memory” at 3:30 p.m., Thursday, May 17 in the Fletcher Challenge Theatre, SFU Harbour Centre. Registration is required.

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