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Memories. We all give a great amount of importance to our memories. Our memories represent who we are, our history and influence the way we act and the way we judge. Memories have an impact not only on our lives, but also on the lives of others as they often relate to events where other people where actors. For instance, memory is a key part of the legal system especially in witnesses’ testimonials and criminal identification.

But how reliable are our memories? Does memory work like a video recorder capturing the event so that we later can replay it as it happened? Or is memory more error prone and easy to manipulate? If you ask these questions to people you’ll see that the majority tends to place high reliability in memories and disregard the idea that memories can be tampered with easily. If you ask people who do study memory, like psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, you’ll get a different and slightly disturbing answer.

It turns out that memories aren’t as reliable as people think and can, with some effort (not nearly as much as you may think) and by expert hands, be modified so that you can forget key details, alter others and even remember events that never took place. For instance, in one of the many experiments Loftus did through her career, subjects vividly remembered going to Disney World and shake hands with Bugs Bunny, a Warner Bros. character.

Slate has a magnificent 8 part report on memories – including a massive experiment – and the work of Elizabeth Loftus that is worth reading. Here’s an excerpt from the first part:

Slate can’t erase all records the way Orwell’s ministry did [in the book 1984]. But with digital technology, we can doctor photographs more effectively than ever. And that’s what we did in last week’s experiment. We altered four images from recent political history, took a fifth out of context, and mixed them with three unadulterated scenes. We wanted to test the power of photographic editing to warp people’s memories.

We aren’t the first to try Orwell’s idea on real people. Elizabeth Loftus, an experimental psychologist, has been tampering with memories in her laboratory for nearly 40 years. Photo doctoring is just one of many techniques she has tested. In an experiment published three years ago, she and two colleagues demonstrated that altered images of political protests in Italy and China influenced Italian students’ descriptions of those incidents. We wanted to see whether similar tampering could work in the United States.

You can read the rest of the first part, and the following 7 parts, here.

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